How livestock is getting caught in the climate crossfire

Animal agriculture is both a major contributor to the climate crisis and a victim of it. What can farmers do to prepare?


by Roberta Staley, Corporate Knights

May 9, 2022


On November 16, 2021, Gary Baars, of Abbotsford, British Columbia, began loading his 200 dairy cows onto a livestock trailer 20 at a time, to get them to higher ground before more rains came. His farm was still dry, but Baars wasn’t taking any chances: his cousin and neighbour, hog producer John Guliker, had to be rescued the day before when floodwaters rose “probably 10 feet deep.” Guliker and 14 workers, who had been trying to evacuate hogs, had to clamber onto a rooftop. The men were rescued by boat, but thousands of Guliker’s pigs drowned.


Guliker wasn’t the only livestock operator hammered by the record flooding that ravaged B.C. last fall. An astonishing number of farm animals – at least 628,000 chickens, 420 cows and 12,000 pigs, according to the provincial government – died in the floodwaters. In all, about 200 square kilometres of southern B.C., encompassing the low-lying, fertile Sumas Prairie, flooded with upwards of 250 millimetres of rain a day. With more than $1 billion a year in farm-gate sales, the potential impact was massive not only for Abbotsford livestock operators but for fruit, vegetable and nut producers in the region.


Around the globe, the climate crisis is ravaging livestock farms. Last summer’s heat dome across much of western and central North America shrivelled crops and pastures, forcing farmers to send cows to slaughter before they starved. In California, ranchers have struggled to evacuate their herds in the face of record wildfires that have charred millions of acres of land the last few summers. In 2018 in North Carolina, about 3.5 million poultry and 5,500 pigs perished in flooding from Hurricane Florence. The costs are adding up: flooding in Nebraska wiped out US$400 million in livestock in 2019 alone.


What’s coming into sharp focus is that today’s livestock infrastructure is built for a climate that no longer exists. Farmers are facing enormous husbandry challenges trying to keep animals safe from extreme weather that brings floods, blistering heat and drought-caused feed shortages. Will barns have to be redesigned and fitted with expensive cooling systems? Might farmers have to create evacuation plans in case of flooding or wildfires? And what happens when their farms are destroyed and insurance companies deem them too risky to insure? A warming climate also attracts invasive new species, transboundary diseases and pathogens, further threatening animal welfare.


Dan Weary, NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) industrial research chair in animal welfare at the University of British Columbia, says that the November flooding saw remarkable feats of heroism as farmers tried to save animals under their care. “Farmers judge themselves in terms of being stewards for their animals,” says Weary. But the enormous loss of life and livelihoods signals that the agriculture sector must take stock in the coming months and look at redesigning farms to make them more resilient.


“This is going to be a perennial issue,” says Weary. Particularly since B.C.’s Sumas floodplain sits in what used to be Sumas Lake, before it was drained a century ago to take advantage of the fertile soil...


... The irony is that animal production itself is fuelling climate change, creating 14.5% of global greenhouse gases...


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