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Ag Insight

By Jim Erickson

A look at climate change’s potential impact on agriculture

Changes in temperature and precipitation can have different affects on crop and livestock production, an important factor at a time of climate change concerns.

Research suggests high heat stress can reduce livestock fertility, weight and the efficiency with which farm animals metabolize feed. This stress can be measured with a temperature-humidity index.

For crops, the Oury index (a measure of aridity that normalizes rainfall with respect to temperature) has been found to be an effective indicator of the relationship between climatic conditions and plant growth. A lower Oury index indicates drier conditions that will generally result in lower crop yield.

Recent ERS research exploring the relationship between climate change and agricultural productivity found that changes in THI and the Oury index varied by U.S. region. Some states had little changes on the average, but became more volatile, with greater fluctuation since the 1980s. The results also suggest that, over the long run, each state gradually adapted to its average climate conditions, with states exposed to more severe conditions adopting technologies or practices that can mitigate damage from adverse weather.

For example, drier regions such as California and Nevada usually have higher irrigation-ready land density than other regions. As a result, average changes in temperature and precipitation may not have severe impacts on productivity as long as they fall within historical fluctuation ranges. In contrast, unexpected weather shocks such as severe droughts that fall outside the range of historical weather fluctuations have more significant impacts on regional productivity.

Researchers also modeled a future climate-change scenario with an average temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and a 1-inch decrease in average annual precipitation. Projections displayed on the accompanying map showed the difference of the total factor productivity levels ‒ the “TFP gap index” ‒ between the projected period of 2030-40 and the reference period of 2000-10 varied across regions. Some states would experience larger effects than others, because for some states those climate changes fall within the range of what is historically observed, while for other states they do not.

Wildfire research targets improved safety

Wildfires blackened nearly 8.8 million acres in the United States last year, highlighted in the news by California’s Camp Fire, the deadliest in that state’s history.

One of the many things that make wildfires so difficult to contain is the effect a fire has on local winds, which can move the fire in unexpected directions with virtually no notice. But, now, technology is being tested that may help firefighters keep pace with a blaze – increasing their safety and allowing them to better position their limited resources.

Georgia State University’s Systems Integrated Modeling and Simulation lab is working on a project developing drones to collect real-time data about wildfires, including fire front data and wind data in the wildfire area. USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture is funding the project.

Fires generate heat that can have a major impact on local wind/weather conditions, a research expert said. The constant interaction between fire and atmosphere causes dynamic and local changes in wind speed and direction that are not predicted well by standard weather models or expert judgment. The real time data collected by [drones] can help firefighters by providing fire location and fire spread information – and issue an “early warning” to firefighters if they are in danger.

The drones will perform test flights over prescribed fires ranging from 20 to 300 acres every year until 2022 to collect data on fire propagation and fire-generated wind, with the goal of supporting the decision making of fire managers and improving safety for firefighters on the ground.

U.S. share of dairy exports to China drops

China’s imports of whey products (dry whey, whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate and modified) and lactose have declined sharply in recent months and the United States’ market share also has dropped.

USDA’s Economic Research Service cites two factors in the decline.

Tariffs by China, in response to U.S. tariffs on certain imports from that nation, likely led the decline in imports of whey products and lactose from the United States. Whey products and lactose are the top dairy products exported, by value, from the United States to China.

However, African swine flu‒ a virus that has affected China’s swine population ‒ also may have affected the markets for these products because they can be fed to hogs.

The end result is that U.S. market share declined from 57% in 2017 to 51% in 2018 and to 38% for the first five months of 2019.

The United States’ largest competitor in this market is the European Union. In the first five months of 2019, the European Union increased its market share to 42%, up from 36% in 2018 and 34% in 2017.

Three Alabama communities receive loans, grants

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service has announced that USDA is investing $135 million in 49 projects to improve rural water infrastructure in 24 states, including three projects in Alabama.

The funds are from the Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant program. Rural cities and towns, water districts and other eligible entities can use the funds for drinking water, stormwater drainage and waste disposal systems in rural communities with 10,000 or fewer residents.

Alabama communities included in the program are:

  • The City of Opp where a loan of $3,289,000 will be used to replace aging asbestos cement and galvanized pipe with PVC designed to provide adequate flow for firefighting, with added fire hydrants where needed.
  • The St. Elmo Irvington Water Authority where a $3,777,000 loan will be used to upgrade facilities, including a new well, a new booster pump station, water mains and a new office building.
  • The New London Water, Sewer and Fire Protection Authority where a $3,294,000 loan and a $522,000 grant will go for an additional well and upgraded water lines to meet the needs of a growing population in the authority’s service area.

Keeping packed lunches safe

Students, sports fans and outdoor enthusiasts all have one thing in common: packed lunches. However, some people still pack perishable food in an old-fashioned brown paper bag instead of an insulated lunchbox.

According to the U.S.DA, food is unsafe to be eaten if it’s kept in a brown paper bag longer than two hours. Insulated lunchboxes help maintain food at a safe temperature until lunchtime.

Why keep food cold? Foodborne illness can multiply rapidly at temperatures between 40 degrees and 140 degrees. This means, if you are tailgating or leaving in the morning for school or work, you’ll need a plan to keep your food cold.

You’ll want to use at least two cold sources to keep perishable foods in your lunch safe; ice or gel packs in your insulated bag or box work best.

Perishable foods such as cold cut sandwiches and yogurt can be left out at room temperature for no more than two hours before they become unsafe to eat. With an insulated lunchbox and a chilled freezer gel pack, perishable food can stay cold and safe to eat until lunch.

You can find reusable cold sources at the store or make your own by filling a water bottle or plastic container with water and freezing it. Depending on how much food you are packing you may need several cold sources. Above all, choose a lunchbox or tote that is easy to clean.

Packing a hot lunch? Use an insulated container to keep your food hot until lunchtime. Before packing your food, fill the container with boiling water and let it stand while you heat your food. Heat your food to at least 165 degrees, then empty the water out of the insulated container, pack your food and seal it tight. Keep the container closed until lunchtime so the food stays hot.

If you are heating an entrée in your office kitchen, be sure to heat it until hot and steaming, or 165 degrees.

When packing your insulated lunch bag, remember to add hand wipes to clean your hands before eating if there are no facilities nearby. When you return home and empty your bag or box, wipe the insides with hot soapy water and let it air dry so it is ready for your next outing.

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