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Climate impacts and adaptation in US dairy systems 1981–2018

Abstract

Animal-level responses to weather variability in US dairy systems are well described, but the potential of housing and other farm management practices (for example, fans and sprinklers) to moderate the impacts of weather remains uncertain. Here we assess the influence of historical variation in the temperature–humidity index (THI) on milk yields using monthly state-level yield data and high-resolution daily weather data over 1981–2018. We find that milk yields are compromised by exposure to both extreme heat (>79 THI) and cold (<39 THI), causing average daily yield decreases of around 3.7% and 6.1%, respectively, relative to optimal conditions (65–69 THI). Colder regions are more sensitive to heat extremes, and warm regions are more sensitive to cold extremes. Sensitivity to THI has reduced dramatically over time. Climate trends contributed modestly (around 0.1% over 38 years) to rising yields in most states via alleviating cold stress, although more extreme future conditions may negate these benefits.

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Fig. 1: Dairy cow populations and milk yield trends.
Fig. 2: The relationship between THI and milk yield and heterogeneity across space and time.
Fig. 3: State- and time-specific milk yield models.
Fig. 4: Trends in THI exposure from 1981 to 2018.
Fig. 5: Disaggregating the yield effects of changes in climate and THI sensitivity.

Data availability

USDA data on monthly milk yields and dairy cow populations are publicly available from USDA NASS Quickstats (https://quickstats.nass.usda.gov/). Weather data from PRISM are also publicly available (https://prism.oregonstate.edu/). In addition, compiled datasets utilized for the findings of this study are available on Zenodo with the identifier https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4818011.

Code availability

Code utilized for the findings of this study is available on Zenodo with the identifier https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4818011.

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Acknowledgements

The authors thank S. Davis, L. Sloat and J. Dillon for helpful comments. This work is supported by the Interdisciplinary Engagement in Animal Systems Program (2021-68014-34141 to N.D.M.) from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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Contributions

N.D.M., M.G.-Q. and A.H. designed the study. M.G.-Q. and A.H conducted the analyses with support from N.D.M. and B.M. on the analytical framework and interpretation of model results, A.J.R. on weather data processing and E.K. and M.T.N. on interpretation regarding dairy cattle physiology and management. M.G.-Q., N.D.M. and A.H. led the writing with input from all co-authors.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Maria Gisbert-Queral or Nathaniel D. Mueller.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Michelle Tigchelaar, Matthew Harrison and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods, Figs. 1 and 2 and Tables 1–11.

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Gisbert-Queral, M., Henningsen, A., Markussen, B. et al. Climate impacts and adaptation in US dairy systems 1981–2018. Nat Food 2, 894–901 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00372-z

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