MANHATTAN, Kansas — A bus filled with livestock industry representatives from South America, Australia, Africa and Europe drove past rows of pens and concrete feed bunks in central Kansas this week.
They held their phones and cameras up to the windows as a wave of cattle lifted their heads and stared back. Dump trucks full of feed shared the roads with cowboys on horses.
Half of the tour group, who had come to Kansas State University for the 9th Global Agenda for Sustainable Livestock Conference, had never visited an industrial-sized feedlot.
Beat Reidy, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Bern, Switzerland, said the size was impressive.
“(The) bigger size usually means a bigger problem,” Reidy said. “I don't know what will happen if they're ... in a drought. This would be quite a complex problem, I think, to solve.”
It was the third day of the conference, which was held in the U.S. for the first time in its history. Conservation efforts and crop research conversations dominated the eight-hour tour that was focused on livestock and the environment, but guides and a feedlot owner mostly skirted around discussing climate change.
Reidy, whose country deals with drought as well, said it was surprising.
“Well, I think it was a general topic at the meeting — climate change was just present everywhere. But today on the field tour, it was not specifically addressed, but indirectly like warmer and night temperatures, changed precipitation patterns.”
Shawn Tiffany owns the feedlot featured on the tour, Tiffany Cattle Company, with his brother Shane. Shawn Tiffany said that over the last two years, the weather made the feedlot tough to manage. This year, much of eastern Kansas received record rainfall, which pushed planting season back.
“All of 2018 was the worst drought that virtually anybody alive can remember. Our crops were borderline failure,” Tiffany said. “This year our crops didn't … go in until about 60 days after. So you're here today at the height of harvest, but that should have occurred three weeks ago.”
Climate change studies indicate that Kansas will get hotter in the coming decades. It’s already an issue, considering Kansas State University issued a news release earlier this summer urging cattle producers to plan for hot days.
“In feedlots or other confined settings, producers should provide plenty of water and shade (if available), and use sprinklers to cool pen floors,” the statement said.
One person on the tour asked Tiffany how the cattle handle hot summer weather.
“I looked at putting shades in the shades (and it) was going to cost almost as much as constructing the pens, and so financially there was almost no way to recoup that cost,” Tiffany said, adding that he uses straw to mitigate heat.
“And what we have found to be almost more effective than shades is we go bed the pens with straw that gets the cattle to spread out and get away from each other where they can get some air movement across their back,” he said. “And it also cuts that heat load in half because instead of having the sun coming down on them and the heat reflecting back from the ground … we mitigate that reflection back from the ground.”
The feedlot is also concerned with soil health, water conservation and reducing methane emissions, according to Susan Metzger, an administrator with K-State’s College of Agriculture.
“They're more interested in confining where their cattle are getting water. So making sure that they have alternative watering sources, they don't have the cattle directly in stream sources,” Metzger said. “And then also making sure that they're controlling runoff through buffer strips and the way that they position their feedlot, so their manure management keeps the nutrients from running into adjacent streams.”
On the next stop, Getachew Gebru, president of the Ethopian Society Of Animal Production, walked along hiking trails through the tallgrass prairie owned by Kansas State University and The Nature Conservancy.
But his mind was on the feedlot. He said the management systems is something he’d like to see replicated in Ethiopia.
“I was able to see the very strong linkage between the producers (and) cow-calf program you have. … I'm seeing a quite effective and vibrant value chain process in here,” Gebru said.
Warming temperatures also threaten Ethiopia’s livestock and rangelands, where livestock graze.
“Unless livestock (are) produced sustainably and this production system becomes sustainable, then we are going to be against the environment. So we have a challenge ahead of us, a challenge, which is surmountable,” Gebru said, “if we are able to use the innovations and the new emerging sciences to be able to address how the animals should be managed and how they have to be fed.”
Keeping an eye out for bison, the tour group walked along a washed-out road while Jesse Nippert, a plant biologist and professor at K-State, discussed how the native grasses are managed by burns.
“Typically in a system like this, in tallgrass prairie, after you burn that first new grass that comes up very high quality, very nutritious and ungulates tend to put on a lot of weight in the short period of time when they're eating some of that new growth.” Nippert said.
Nippert said grasslands are used to warm weather, but that the frequency of rainfall is something that will change.
“The biggest one with warmer temperatures is it tends to correspond with changes in rainfall,” Nippert said. “So if you're getting warmer temperatures and more infrequent rainfall, you're going to have a greater frequency and intensity of drought.”
Eventually, the hot weather could transform the size of the bison.
“Normally when organisms are exposed to warmer temperatures for very long periods of time, like evolutionary time, they tend to get smaller with heat. So, you know, potentially be slightly smaller bison, you know, over millennia,” Nippert said.
Because of the 91-degree-day, the third stop on the tour was shortened at the Ashland Bottoms Research Farm.
Kraig Roozenboom, a cropping systems professor at K-State, stood in a field of soybeans while taking questions about sustainable crop production. Roozenboom explained the farm is part of a no-tillage system and hasn’t been plowed for the last 13 years. But he said that’s changing due to weed resistance to herbicides.
“As our herbicide have become less effective due to glyphosate tolerance and the weed populations, people are dragging out tillage equipment that they haven't used for 20 years,” Roozenboom said.
And that tilling is happening in the drier climates of western Kansas.
“I think it's the shift is probably been on less than 10% of the acres, but it's still significant.” Roozenboom said.
Finally, the tour made its last stop at a K-State farm across the street from its main campus in Manhattan, where Krishna Jagadish discussed a new research project looking at the heat tolerance in wheat.
Jagadish said as nighttime temperatures rise, wheat grains become thinner and that’s an issue for bread and beer production. Beer needs thicker grains.
“The bread that is made out of that wheat is just going to be going more crusty if not taste as you really wanted,” he said.
Jagadish developed a wheat prototype to test in a controlled environment to see how they withstand heat, and said southern states (though he didn’t specify which ones) are already seeing thinner wheat grains due to hotter weather.