Starting the Climate Conversation: Using Scenario Planning to Promote Resilience in Beef Production
Too big to fail
Across rural landscapes of the Northern Great Plains, evidence of the beef cattle industry is everywhere: tall grain elevators and bins that store feed products dominate many small towns, and it’s very common to see beef cattle grazing in pastures or gathering around automated feeders in animal feeding operations. Indeed, in Nebraska—long known as “the beef state”—the Nebraska Beef Council asserts that beef production is “the state’s single largest industry and the engine that powers the state’s economy.”
When a single industry is responsible for a major portion of a region’s income, the industry’s level of resilience can become an important public concern. After all, if the industry sees a downturn, unemployment can rise quickly, bringing the regional economy to a standstill. To avoid this problem, states in the region have a number of efforts in place to help maintain the viability of their beef production industries.
Crystal Powers, a born-and-bred Nebraska farmer and an Extension Engineer at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is one of the people who work to help beef producers remain profitable. She wants to ensure that producers are resilient to events or conditions that could threaten their continued operations—including climate change.
A skeptical audience
Across the Great Plains, conversations about climate change are often met with skepticism. Some people reject the concept because they don’t believe human activity can affect the whole planet. Others don’t trust the political solutions being offered, in part because they have frequently cast beef production as one of the climate demons. Despite the results of Nebraska’s 2015 Rural Poll, in which 61 percent of respondents agreed the state should develop a plan for adapting to climate change to reduce its impact on agriculture, initiating a conversation about building climate resilience among beef producers can be a hard sell.
Powers and her team are up to the task: they have seen first-hand how storms, floods, and droughts can reduce income. And it’s hard to ignore the bottom line on balance sheets that show Nebraska and South Dakota have been hit by 14 separate billion-dollar climate and weather disasters since 2010.
Powers’ challenge was clear: she and her team needed an innovative strategy to start the conversation about how beef producers can build resilience to climate-related hazards.
Recalling past events
Powers and her colleagues recognized that farmers and ranchers love to talk about the weather; most producers also willingly share their best management strategies with other producers. These tendencies helped define a potential resilience-building strategy.
With partners from the University of Nebraska and South Dakota State University and funding from the USDA through their Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate project and the Northern Plains Climate Hub, Extension staff set up focus groups across the region. Meetings began with conversations about the range of conditions producers had seen in the past. Calling on personal experiences, participants developed a timeline of severe events and seasonal conditions, and discussed what it took for them to come through difficult circumstances. Experts then backed up the events on participants’ timelines by showing historic climate data for the same period. At each location, experts also pointed out the trends revealed by participant input.
Thinking about the future
Moving on from the obviously variable climate of the past, organizers used a two-axis grid to consider the future. Participants experimented with different climate drivers on each axis, and then settled on using one axis to represent temperature and one to represent precipitation. This resulted in four potential future climate scenarios: warm & wet, warm & dry, cool & dry, or cool & wet. The method organizers used to develop scenarios was based on a National Park Service handbook, Using Scenarios to Explore Climate Change: A Handbook for Practitioners (PDF download).
Focusing on one scenario at a time, the groups discussed the range of impacts each set of conditions would have on beef production, developing separate lists for the winter/spring and summer/fall. For both periods in each scenario, participants listed how the conditions would likely affect processes such as calving, use of pastures or rangeland, and pests.
To produce a visual record of the scenarios, Powers sketched different views of a single farm showing how it might look under each scenario, then worked with a graphic designer to produce posters. The posters proved to be very valuable in promoting conversations about the impacts conditions would have on various phases of production.
Matching management strategies to impacts
In a second round of focus groups, participants brainstormed current and potential management strategies producers could use to counter the negative impacts and capitalize on the positive impacts of each scenario. The list of strategies they developed describes a range of options that can help beef producers in the region optimize their operations under any conditions.
Participants agreed that the scenario approach helped them consider if they have effective management strategies to cover likely future conditions. And Extension staff used the results to identify gaps in research, programming, or development of new strategies that can build climate resilience among beef producers.
Powers recognizes there’s still work to be done, but she’s pleased with the progress they’ve made in helping beef producers consider how to build resilience. She and her team attribute at least part of their success to starting the conversation on the right foot.
Crystal Powers and ESIP (Earth Science Information Partners) Agriculture and Climate Cluster.
Angus cattle on pasture. USDA photo by Scott Bauer. Public domain