Planning for Resilience: Using Scenarios to Address Potential Impacts of Climate Change for the Northern Plains Beef System

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Resiliency to weather extremes is a topic that Northern Plains farmers and ranchers are already familiar with, but now climate change is adding new uncertainties that make it difficult to know the best practices for the future. Scenario planning is a method of needs assessment that will allow Extension and beef system stakeholders to come together using the latest climate science to discover robust management options, highlight key uncertainties, prioritize Extension programming needs, and provide an open forum for discussion for this sometimes controversial topic.

Overall objectives:

1. Determine a suite of key future scenarios based on climate science that are plausible, divergent, relevant, and challenging to the beef industry.

2. Determine robust management options that address the key scenario drivers.

3. Develop a plan for Extension programming to address determined educational needs.

What did we do?

A team of researchers, Extension specialists, and educators was formed with members from University of Nebraska and South Dakota State University. They gathered the current research information on historical climate trends, projections in future climate for the region, and anticipated impacts to the beef industry. These were summarized in a series of white papers.

Three locations were selected to host two half day focus groups, representing the major production regions. A diverse group representing the beef industry of each region including feedlot managers, cow calf ranchers, diversified producers, veterinarians, bankers, NRCS personnel, and other allied industries. The first focus group started with a discussion of the participants past experiences with weather impacts. The team then provided short presentations starting with historic climate trends and projection, anticipated impacts, and uncertainties. The participants then combined critical climate drivers as axis in a 2×2 grids, each generating a set of four scenarios. They then listed impacts for each combination. The impacts boundaries were feed production through transporting finished cattle off-farm.

Project personnel then combined the results of all three locations to prioritize the top scenarios, which were turned into a series of graphics and narratives. The participants were then brought together for a second focus group to brainstorm management and technology options that producers were already implementing or might consider implementing. These were then sorted based on their effectiveness across multiple climate scenarios, or robustness. The options where also sorted by the readiness of the known information: Extension materials already available, research data available but few Extension materials, and research needed.

Graphic depicting warm/dry, warm/wet, cold/dry, cold/wet conditions on the farm during winter-spring

Graphic depicting hot/dry, hot/wet, cool/dry, cool/wet conditions on the farm during summer-fall

What have we learned?

The key climate drivers were consistent across all focus groups: temperature and precipitation, ranging from below average to above average. In order to best capture the impacts, the participants separated winter/spring and summer/fall.

This method of using focus groups as our initial interaction with producers on climate change was well received. Most all farmers love to talk about the weather, so discussing historical trends and their experiences with it as well as being upfront with the uncertainties in future projections, while emphasizing the need for proactive planning seemed to resonate.

With so many competing interests for producers’ time, as well as a new programming area, it was critical to have trusted local educators to invite participants. Getting participants to the second round of focus groups was also more difficult, so future efforts should considering hosting a single, full day focus group, or allowing the participants to set the date for the second focus group, providing more motivation to attend.

Future Plans

The scenarios and related management options will be used to develop and enhance Extension programming and resources as well as inform new research efforts. The goal is to provide a suite of robust management options and tools to help producers make better decisions for their operation.

Corresponding author, title, and affiliation

Crystal Powers, Extension Engineer, University of Nebraska – Lincoln

Corresponding author email

Other authors

Rick Stowell, Associate Professor at University of Nebraska – Lincoln

Additional information

Crystal Powers


155 Chase Hall, East Campus

Lincoln, NE 68583


Thank you to the project team:

University of Nebraska – Lincoln: Troy Walz, Daren Redfearn, Tyler Williams, Al Dutcher, Larry Howard, Steve Hu, Matthew Luebbe, Galen Erickson, Tonya Haigh

South Dakota State University: Erin Cortus, Joseph Darrington,

This project was supported by the USDA Northern Plains Regional Climate Hub and Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Grant No. 2011-67003-30206 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The authors are solely responsible for the content of these proceedings. The technical information does not necessarily reflect the official position of the sponsoring agencies or institutions represented by planning committee members, and inclusion and distribution herein does not constitute an endorsement of views expressed by the same. Printed materials included herein are not refereed publications. Citations should appear as follows. EXAMPLE: Authors. 2017. Title of presentation. Waste to Worth: Spreading Science and Solutions. Cary, NC. April 18-21, 2017. URL of this page. Accessed on: today’s date.

Adaptation and Risk Management

Food production is dependent on weather and climate. Agriculture must always be planning and preparing for weather or responding to weather as it happens. Adaptation to weather and climate has occurred since farming started and will continue to occur as we move forward in the future. The rate of adaptation is the key to keep up with the rate that the climate changes.

Factsheet: Adapting to a changing climate: A planning guide (PDF; 44 pp)

Climate Change Adaptation is the most common terminology used to discuss how organisms and ecosystems adjust to changing extremes or patterns in weather over time. Most cities and states are drafting plans to help prepare for weather events such as flooding, extreme heat events, disease outbreaks, and others.

Risk Management is a term more commonly used in business and refers to the process of identifying, assisting, and prioritizing of risk followed by some application of resources (usually time or money) to prevent or minimize the negative consequences.

A report from Iowa Beef Center in 1995 discussed a survey of beef producers who lost cattle in a 13 county area over a 2 day period. For those farmers loosing animals, the impact was significant but a quote from the paper sums up the cost benefit decision that must be made when planning for a changing climate.

“How much can a feedlot operator spend to protect against a weather event that has occurred only six times in the last 101 years?”

This is a real and critical question that must be asked. What if this similar type of heat event started occurring every 10 years, or every 5 years? This changes the equation when looking at risk and reward or cost benefit to the implementation of practices or systems to deal with extreme heat.

Adaptation Strategies

Adaptation strategies lay on a continuum with the least drastic listed first (increasing resilience) and most drastic last (transformation).

  • Increasing resilience is a level of adaptation that is similar to what has occurred in the past. As climate changes, technologies or management improves or adjusts to those changes. Resilience has resulted in animal housing, irrigation, diet, genetics, management and other factors that allow farms to be profitable with standard weather variability.
  • Reducing vulnerability is adaptation at the next level with larger and longer term changes in an existing operation to reduce the risk of current or future climate trends. Things such as bringing in heat tolerant genetics, additional cooling capacity in the buildings, or farm diversification. These strategies require a higher investment and are focused on operational changes that allow for profitability into the future.
  • Adaptation through transformation are those changes where the current farming system is nearly abandoned due to climate changes. Complete changes are made in cropping or animals or a new business venture replaces the one on the current site. Transformation might also include the general migration of an industry to a new climate region.

cattle loafing on a bed pack in their barn

Any adaption strategy must be chosen as a function of the site specific features of the farm. Geographic location, current management, current finances, long term and short term farm goals and other considerations need to be made when evaluating farm management and business changes. In addition, the strategy must be based on the current or predicted trends in weather and the impacts this might bring to the farm. A farm prone to flooding in a region where flooding trends are increasing may be interested in a transformational adaptation strategies like relocation than a farm that never experiences flooding.

Cost benefits of these adaptation strategies are not simple. If we were only comparing damage cost to the cost to prevent the damage, the calculation would be simple. Unfortunately, the damage cost is a function of the probability of the weather event and its intensity. For now we must rely on recent weather trends and future climate predictions. Therefore, it is important to be informed about climate change, the impacts of climate change on a local and global level and the economics of adaptation options. Site assessment and planning are key to making good long term adaptation decisions.

Educator Materials

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Recommended Reading/Viewing

Agricultural Adaptation to Climate Change: Economic and Environmental Implications Vary by Region More… (USDA Economic Research Service, 2012)

Dairy Cattle – Heat Stress

Beef Feedlot Cattle – Heat Stress

Rangeland/Pasture – Drought

Swine Heat Stress

Poultry Heat Stress

Drought: Water Quality and Quantity

Disaster Preparedness Resources


Author: David Schmidt, University of Minnesota

This material was developed through support from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) under award #2011-67003-30206.

What Practices are Reducing Environmental and Economic Risks on Wisconsin Farms?

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This workshop will focus on how dairy farmers in Wisconsin evaluate the risk of nutrient and sediment loss on their operations and what best management practices are adopted to reduce these risks.  Dennis will describe how farm families evaluate all the risk factors facing their operation (weather, production, marketing, labor, safety and environmental risks) and discuss how a farmer has to balance the risk and rewards for each of these challenges.  It is helpful to gain an appreciation for the numerous challenges farmers face on a daily basis and the amount of time committed to the evaluation and implementation of soil and water best management practices on each farm. Conservation practices are often applied in a “one size fits all” approach and are not developed and implemented to fit the needs of each farming operation.  The large diversity of both farming systems and physical settings require a collaborative evaluation and implementation process between producers and conservation technicians to develop economic, effective, and practical conservation practices to fit the specific circumstances of individual farming operations.

What Are Some of the Lessons Learned in Managing Environmental Risks?

The focus of this talk is to explain when and where we saw nutrient and sediment losses that could have been avoided with improvements in management.  We will also discuss what we have learned about unavoidable losses and try and explain the difference between unacceptable risk and acceptable risk.

What Did We Do?

Over the past twelve years UW – Discovery Farms has worked on many farms evaluating a variety of farming systems and identifying the positive and negative impacts that production agriculture can have on the environment.  Data collection through this program includes over 120 sites years of edge-of-field monitoring, in-stream monitoring and monitoring tile drainage systems.  All the monitoring was done in partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS)  and this data set is one of the largest and best on-farm sets known to exist.

What Have We Learned?

Discovery Farms has studied a variety of farming systems including no-till, minimal tillage, tillage and rotational grazing.  The settings for these farming systems ranged from very steep (the driftless region with slopes up to 32%) to gently rolling (<3%) with a variety of unique challenges including manure management, tile drainage systems and close distance to surface water.  On each of the operations that were studied, the farm operators have selected a farming system (tillage, planting, pest control, manure management, harvest, crop rotation, etc) that works for them.  For the first two years of the study we asked the producers not make changes to their farming systems so that we could evaluate nutrient and sediment loss from their current practices.  It quickly became apparent that on real farms, nothing stays the same.  All of our cooperators made adjustments in management based not only on the data we were collecting, but also based on economics, changes in demand and changes on the operation (equipment, land base, labor, increase in cattle numbers).  It is also apparent that even with the best farming system, implemented almost perfectly; mother nature can throw some unanticipated events which have a tremendous impact on nutrient and sediment losses. 

Future Plans

In 2010, the UW – Discovery Farms Program expanded their on-farm research program to include not only edge-of-field and in-stream work on individual farms;  they are now working with multiple farms in small watersheds.  The goal of these studies is to better understand the relationsihp betweeen edge-of-field losses and what actually happens in lakes and streams.


Dennis R. Frame, Director, UW – Discovery Farms Program; Professor UW – Extension,

Amber Radatz, Outreach Specialilst, UW – Discovery Farms

Eric Cooley, Outreach Specialist, UW-Discovery Farms

Additional Information

UW Discovery Farms makes every effort to develop materials from all of the on-farm research projects.  These materails are available on our website ( or by contacting our office at 1-715-983-5668).


The authors would like to thank all the farmers who have participated in our program.  Without their guidance and support this program would not be possible.  We would also like to acknowledge the support and guidance of all the non-governmental agricultural organizations in Wisconsin who continue to provide support financially and politically.


The authors are solely responsible for the content of these proceedings. The technical information does not necessarily reflect the official position of the sponsoring agencies or institutions represented by planning committee members, and inclusion and distribution herein does not constitute an endorsement of views expressed by the same. Printed materials included herein are not refereed publications. Citations should appear as follows. EXAMPLE: Authors. 2013. Title of presentation. Waste to Worth: Spreading Science and Solutions. Denver, CO. April 1-5, 2013. URL of this page. Accessed on: today’s date.