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Teachable Moment

Heat Stress Cattle by Carl Dahlen- NDSU
NDSU Carl Dahlen

Teachable moments are those times when people really need the information so are ready to listen to what you have to say.

In my past life I did research and education on odors from livestock facilities. The times that my teaching efforts were most effective was when a new farm was being proposed and the citizens of the county were opposing the facility due to odor complaints. This resulted in the farmer, concerned citizens, and county board coming to me for information, and paying attention to what I said. A teachable moment.

So this past week’s severe heat and storms throughout much of the United States makes for a great teachable moment for adapting to a changing climate. One option for organizing your teaching might be the following:

Step 1.  Quantify the Weather Event. Most farmers track and record temperature and rainfall totals. But, did they record rainfall intensity? Temperature or THI? or other important weather factors that might impact the farm? As educators, what other data is being recorded that might be useful. Or maybe there  are some weather forecasting tools to pass along that might help farmers prepare or document these weather events. (e.g. USDA Heat Stress Forecast.

Step 2. Evaluate Impacts. Farmers are the ones best suited to evaluate impacts as it has to be done by someone very familiar with the farm operation and farm economics.  Educators can encourage studying the numbers and looking at both short and long term impacts.  It might take several months to quantify these impacts such as how fast production comes back, the losses from reproductive and health impacts, or the penalty on carcass weights. Maybe it is about the impacts on employees? Sometimes just asking questions can be an important role in education. e.g. how did this heat affect the X, Y, or Z?

Step 3. Identify Weak Points. Every farmer knows what the weak points are when these weather events occur. They know those pasture areas that are prone to flooding , the hottest barns on the property, or the most vulnerable animals and likely have some ideas on management or technologies that can help reduce the impacts.  Educators might be able to expand the scope of the potential weak points – adequate sprinkling? reduced fan capacity from maintenance? Educators may also know some common failures or weak points from other similar farms or be able to pass on some common adaptation techniques (e.g. gutters or shade cloth).

Step 4. Return Frequency. Finally, historic climate data is available for many types of events. Farmers can’t make good decisions without this type of information. Return on investment in adaptation is a function of this return frequency.  Educators can find and summarize this weather data and trends in a meaningful way for producers. If you don’t have this information go to Climate at a Glance or one of the Regional Climate Centers for more information or contact your state climatologist.

Rare weather events are not going away and may becoming less rare. Some farms “weather the storm” better than others. In any case, I see any extreme weather event as a teachable moment.

Always Considering Climate — David

David Schmidt MS. PE is a researcher and educator in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota and regional project coordinator for the project Animal Agriculture in a Changing Climate,  a national project of the Livestock and Poultry Environmental Learning Center and funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

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