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What climate change could mean on farm

Experts examine range of possible effects

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OK, the climate is a changin'. We get it. But what does it mean for us?

The steady stream of reports and dire warnings about global climate change have hammered the point home and gone a long way toward silencing the deniers. Now, the challenge is spelling out how it's going to affect how we live, where we live and what we need to do about it.

As a U.S. government report released last week pointed out, the effects will be regionally specific. As the weather becomes more volatile, the related effects become more pronounced, whether it's tornadoes in the Midwest, floods and storm surges in the East, droughts or mudslides in the West.

When a group of Canadian academics and researchers set about preparing a series of essays on what might be in store for Prairie agriculture in coming decades, one of the first things they acknowledged was a variable, volatile, unpredictable climate is really nothing new to Prairie farmers.

"Future resilience will be affected by the many variables that impact agriculture's ability to adapt, with climate perhaps being one of the more predictable variables," says the report, Moving Toward Prairie Agriculture 2050, released last month by the University of Manitoba.

'Perhaps the most important message emerging from this report is that Prairie agriculture has thrived because of the industry's ability to adapt quickly'

The 23 essays cover a range of topics, from how the cropping mix might change or not and how weeds and pests might behave, to how the education system can better prepare the next generation.

Scientists predict global warming will extend the Prairie growing season by 25 to 50 per cent, which translates into an extra 15 to 50 days. Hot spells will be hotter by 1 C to 2 C and cold spells will be 2 C to 4 C colder.

That seems relatively small when the variation in mean monthly temperatures on the Prairies can vary by as much as 50 C from one year to the next, says the essay by Brian Amiro and Paul Bullock, two soil scientists specializing in agricultural meteorology. "It is more likely that we will need to adapt to a new frequency of events, even if the agricultural impact of each event (cold or warm) is not a new experience," they said.

Charles Grant, an agricultural economist with the University of Manitoba, notes payouts due to severe weather events in Canada have been increasing since the 1980s. Public and private insurers will have to limit their exposure through higher premiums, higher deductibles and more requirements for self-insurance -- which, for farmers, means the cost of risk management will rise.

Even though the total amount of precipitation isn't expected to change much, the manner in which it falls and the timing, combined with the warmer climate, is expected to make water management key.

Some have speculated increased corn and soybean production on the eastern Prairies in recent years is evidence it is becoming the new Iowa or Illinois.

South Dakota might be a more accurate comparison, says Bruce Burnett, the weather and crops specialist with CWB Research.

To be sure, a longer growing season gives Prairie farmers more cropping options. But again, when we are talking about a region that already produces more than 17 crops, it's all relative.

Wheat, barley and canola have been the big three western crops over the past two decades, accounting for 79 per cent of the planted acreage over the past five years. Burnett thinks it's unlikely climate change alone will modify that.

However, other things, such as technology or shifting markets, might. For example, 50 years ago, farmers had never heard of canola.

Burnett points to the 73 per cent drop in oat production on the Prairies from a peak of 10.7 million acres in 1943 to 1.1 million acres in 2013. Farmers grew oats to feed their horses. Then tractors replaced horses.

Trying to predict what transformative technologies will appear between now and 2050 makes weather forecasting look simple.

Perhaps the most important message emerging from this report is Prairie agriculture has thrived because of the industry's ability to adapt quickly to new opportunities and stresses. That adaptability will be even more important in the future.

 

Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: laura@fbcpublishing.com

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2014 B10

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