For businesses such as farms to remain healthy, they must be resilient. This means having the ability to adapt to changing circumstances in a way that keeps the operation running smoothly and profitably. In the dairy industry, we often use this term in reference to fluctuating milk prices. For agriculture, being resilient also increasingly means being able to respond to changes in the environment and climate.
Even without getting into climate patterns, farmers can clearly recognize that weather events have become more variable in recent decades, especially in certain parts of the country. “It’s something you can visually see and comprehend,” said Monica Jean, a Michigan State University Extension field crop educator. “Struggling to manage moisture, or the lack of it, on a yearly basis is definitely a problem of ours in agriculture.” Drought, extreme rain events, and flooding are just a few of the weather conditions farmers have found themselves dealing with in the last few years.
On a recent MSU podcast episode, Jean discussed some of the strategies and tools farmers can use to become more resilient to these weather changes. Whether you need options to ensure your land can absorb more rain and snowfall or ways for the soil to conserve moisture in case of drought, taking time to plan can make a significant difference. For dairy farms, weather resiliency plans may also consider how to mitigate the effects of heat, moisture, or other circumstances on the animals. No matter the goal, those plans will look different for every farm and often every field, Jean recognized.
To identify your key vulnerabilities, look at your records to see where you are spending a lot of money on fixing areas of the farm. “Maybe you’re applying a lot of nitrogen because you’re losing a lot of nitrogen,” Jean described. After identifying the situation, you can look into potential solutions, such as building up organic matter.
Most of the changes you may make will be adaptive and have a more immediate impact so that soil or animal health doesn’t continue to deteriorate, she added. But it is also worth looking into longer term options that might have a more significant impact on resiliency as the years progress.
Particularly on the soil side, everything interacts as a cycle, Jean reminded. For example, she noted that cropping inputs do not just encompass the fertilizer that is applied; cover crops also have an effect on the field’s performance. Cover crops can serve many purposes that build the land’s resilience to weather, and she also encouraged farmers to be resilient themselves when introducing this approach. “Don’t let one or two years of failure determine your relationship with some of these soil health practices because they do take time to work out. There’s a learning curve,” she said.
Michigan State is currently working with the University of Michigan and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to develop a climate readiness assessment tool for farmers. The survey is available for fruit and row crop growers; a dairy survey is forthcoming. That will be just one way for farmers to holistically evaluate how prepared they are for changes in weather patterns, Jean explained. She recommended other tools that currently exist and noted that a great place for many farmers to start are regional cover crop groups.