Case Study Background:
This case study was developed for a family owned 90-acre poultry and beef farm in southeast Mississippi. The farm includes six commercial broiler houses on 10 acres, pasture on 60 acres, and woodlands on 10 acres. Family income is solely dependent on poultry and beef cattle production. The poultry operation sells five flocks of commercial broilers (approximately 460,000 total heads) per year. Currently, there are approximately 40 head of beef cattle on the property. While the poultry and beef cattle enterprises are individual operations, they are uniquely connected: the poultry litter from the broiler operation helps fertilize both the pastureland, where the cattle graze, as well as the hay fields that provide much of their winter feed. An NRCS-designed nutrient management plan (NMP) for the farm covers both the poultry and beef cattle operations. Southeast Mississippi has a humid subtropical climate characterized by hot, humid summers and temperate winters. While rainfall is generally plentiful, drought and flooding occur throughout the area.
The management goals for the poultry farm are to increase family income by reducing cooling water use during the summer, improving bird weight gain, and reducing both feed conservation ratio and labor requirements. The management goals for the beef production farm include increasing herd size, matching genetics and forage programs to climate, improving soil health and water quality by testing and matching poultry litter applications to soil needs, establishing paddock grazing to improve forage efficiency, and reducing the farm’s overall environmental footprint.
The poultry-beef joint operation with A) rows of 12-year-old poultry houses, and B) sheltered broiler chickens in a ground floor poultry house system. Litter from the chickens is C) stored under an open-air system to release methane build-up, and D) spread over the pastures to fertilize beef cattle grazing fields.
Climate Change Impacts
The average annual temperature in Mississippi was highly variable during the 20th century and only increased approximately 0.1°F during that time. While this was less than other states in the southeastern U.S. during this time, temperatures in Mississippi are projected to increase during the 21st century. This will result in increased heat stress and soil moisture loss. Extreme rainfall events are not uncommon in Mississippi; however, changing rainfall patterns (heavier rain events followed by more extended dry periods) will continue to challenge agricultural producers.
Climate change and variability have the potential to affect these poultry and beef operations in several ways. For the poultry operation, climate change and increasing temperatures may mean:
- More days with extreme heat will increase the heat load in poultry houses and require additional electricity to run fans longer to cool the birds and prevent heatstroke.
- More water will be needed to alleviate increased heat stress on the birds. Additionally, a cool cell system will provide cold water via sprinkler systems to help maintain safe house temperatures.
- Fewer birds are placed in houses to lessen the risk of heat-related losses, leading to fewer birds for the farmer to sell and a reduction in income.
- Increased number of potentially dangerous storms (tornadoes, hurricanes, straight-line winds) that can threaten dwellings and farm structures, including poultry houses.
- Less sustainability and increased use of natural resources (particularly water).
For the beef cattle system, potential climate change vulnerabilities include:
- Changing rainfall patterns that reduce available moisture during the April-October growing season threaten both forage quality and quantity.
- Increases in the frequency and intensity of severe storms and extreme rainfall events could result in increased erosion of pastureland/hay fields, especially in areas with bare soil where plant roots do not hold the soil structure in place.
- More days with extreme heat increase stress on animals and forage, especially during droughts. In hotter weather, cattle prefer resting in the shade as opposed to foraging, which slows weight-gain. This means a longer time is required for calves to reach an acceptable market weight, decreasing annual farm income. Heat stressed pastures will result in reduced grazing forage and winter hay yields, especially if soils become dry. Thus, production costs will increase since additional supplemental feeding will be required during the winter.
- Hotter nighttime temperatures prevent body cooling, which increases animal heat load, resulting in disturbed rest, decreased appetite, and reduced weight gains.
- With climate change causing longer growing seasons and fewer cold days/nights, some believe this may increase cattle forage consumption and growth duration. However, the potential for reduced feed intake and weight gain of heat-stressed cattle and lower quality and quantity of intolerant forage species throughout the year might offset any potential positives of climate change unless adaptations are made.
Challenges and Opportunities
Climate change and variability will continue impacting the poultry operations as higher temperatures require more water use to alleviate heat stress and more electricity use to keep poultry houses cooler. By consulting with local Extension services and upgrading the facilities now, the poultry farm expects to improve bird weight gains, reduce cooling water use in summer and labor requirements, use poultry litter more effectively, and increase family income. Changing rainfall patterns and more days with extreme heat will increase stress on the beef cattle farm; however, switching to more heat tolerant livestock and matching the forage program to a drier and longer grazing season will increase resilience to these threats. Conducting soil and poultry litter analyses will help inform application rates and improve forage quality and quantity, while implementing best management practices and nutrient management plans (NMPs) will reduce erosion, improve water quality and quantity, and reduce the farms overall environmental foot print.
The greatest challenge that managers faces in terms of climate change is the difficulty of planning for problems five years in the future while still trying to address problems that exist today. The real opportunity of impending climate change is that preparing for it makes current operations more sustainable, profitable, economically friendly, and solves animal farming problems encountered today. However, not all animal farming problems are equal. For example, the goals and objectives for the poultry operation are more easily achieved than the goals and objectives for the grazing beef operation because 1) the broilers are housed in environmentally controlled houses (fans, sprinklers, ventilation, etc.) while the beef cattle are exposed to the elements, making them more vulnerable to climate variability, 2) many of the beef management strategies, such as purchasing more heat-tolerant breeds and forage varieties, buying more winter forage, and purchasing more fences for paddocks, are repeating and more costly than replacing sprinkler and feeding broiler systems, and 3) the goal of improving pastureland for beef cattle is variable and complex and requires years of implementation, whereas our poultry objectives are primarily engineering advances which are easy, immediate, and are known to reduce costs. While considering opportunities to address climate change impacts, the farm's ability to fully prepare is challenging given the cost and uncertain benefits of some potential strategies.
The Adaptation Workbook was used during a brainstorming session to identify potential approaches and tactics that can be implemented on the poultry and beef farms to increase resilience to climate change and variability. For the poultry farm, adaptation actions include:
- Analyzing soil and litter samples to determine appropriate pastures application rates in compliance with NMP guidelines. This will allow the farm to stay in compliance with the NMP, better protect the environment, and improve soil and forage conditions.
- Timing poultry litter applications based on soil analysis will help avoid fecal run-off and pollution, while adding buffer strips and setback distances near lowlands and creek will protect water quality on the property and improve soil conditions.
- Installing sprinklers that use 60% less water to cool the chickens compared to the current cool cell system will provide better environmental conditions for the flock, increase sustainability, and reduce the farms carbon footprint through reduced water usage.
- Replacing the old feeder system to prevent feed wastage and improving feed conversion will increase flock performance and feed sustainability.
- Drilling another water well on the property will improve water availability and reduce rural water purchases and dependence.
Adaptation actions to implement on the beef farm include:
- Timing litter applications to improve soil productivity will reduce nutrient loss and runoff and increase forage quality and quantity to support additional livestock.
- Adding cross fencing and paddocks will better utilize the pastureland for quicker land recovery and increased forage quality and quantity.
- Matching the forage program to climate change (e.g., planting heat tolerant varieties) will improve forage quality, quantity, and sustainability.
- Matching livestock genetics to climate change (e.g., heat tolerant breeds) will reduce the risk of slow weight gain and injuries/illnesses due to heat stress.
Cross-fencing and paddock establishment with A) adequate water tubs and B) shade shelters help to improve both cattle well-being and pasture health through grazing rotation and forage recovery. Re-seeding sparse pastureland with native or grazing-tolerant grass species (C) and creating riparian buffer zones (D) help prevent soil erosion, nutrient loss, and water pollution.
As the climate changes, this Mississippi beef and poultry farm will continually monitor their management decisions and how those decisions impact challenges and opportunities in production agriculture and farm health. Specifically, for the poultry farm, they will 1) measure and monitor feed conversion ratios and average flock market weight to determine the effectiveness of feeding systems and 2) record water meter usage and heat-related deaths to determine the effectiveness of new water systems. Monitoring on the beef farm will include 1) recording and comparing herd size, weight gains and related deaths for different genetic groups, 2) recording the start and end of the grazing season to take advantage of a lengthening growing season, 3) measuring and comparing the weights and fiber contents of hay bales between years, and 4) tracking annual costs of hay and supplements for comparison between years.
Southeastern Mississippi Poultry and Beef Farm 2-page fact sheet