My family has been raising cattle in the Southwest for almost 50 years, and last year we experienced a first – producers in our valley did not receive any supplemental irrigation water from the reservoir. Agricultural producers in the river valleys and winding canyons of the Southwest are feeling the impacts of climate change. Temperatures are rising, snowpack is decreasing, runoff is occurring earlier in the year, and it’s becoming drier. As climate change continues to impact the Southwest, understanding how these environmental changes impact us will help farmers and ranchers like myself adjust our land management practices to remain resilient to drought and climate change.
Ecosystems Adapt & So Can We!
Areas that receive low amounts of rainfall are especially susceptible to changes in the environment. The plants and animals that live in dry areas are specialized to this unique landscape, and as the world around them changes, they must adapt or face extinction. Fortunately, healthy ecosystems respond to change, and so can we. The key to responding is diversity. Biodiversity is what gives species the genetic advantage they need to adapt to changing environments. The environment is changing, and just as genetic diversity allows for change, farmers and ranchers can proactively use innovative, versatile strategies to respond and help their enterprises survive.
Healthy Livestock Make Happy, Profitable Ranchers
Ensuring livestock remain healthy is the top priority for those who raise animals. Managed grazing that supports healthy soils and robust forage is a must. Lack of water affects the nutritional content and digestibility of forage. This leads to animals – and ranchers – becoming stressed. Adjusting stocking rates and pasture rotation are a few strategies recommended by the USDA Southwest Climate Hub that can help support the health of your pastures, which in turn supports the health of your animals.
Increased temperatures aren’t just uncomfortable; livestock consume more water when it is hot, making stock water especially important when water is scarce. Warmer temperatures also directly impact the health of our livestock, which in turn reduces profits. Providing access to pastures with trees or shade structures where livestock can get out of the sun is just as important as providing access to water.
It’s No Surprise That Plants Need Water
When water is limited, our fields produce less hay, forage and produce, making it challenging to grow what we need to be successful. Changing temperature will affect which crops thrive in particular areas. The Colorado State University Extension office provides many helpful strategies for how we can tackle these challenges. Prepare to make adjustments to the specific plants that you cultivate. Try planting crop varieties that require less water to thrive and research how specific crops use water. Rotate crops in a way that better promotes growth and productivity during drought and incorporate strategies that slow down water and increase infiltration, such as installing contour swales in fields.
Changes in temperature and precipitation patterns will impact the harvest timing of hay and produce and increase the likelihood of weeds popping up. Be prepared for changes in when you typically harvest and focus on increasing biodiversity by planting a mixture of different types of plants in a hayfield or pasture. Variety provides resilience as well as defense against invasive species, which are less likely to move into healthy, drought-resilient pastures and hayfields.
Healthy Watersheds Support Us All
Water is critical to life in Colorado because it supports the biodiversity and health of the entire watershed, including the animals and plants so important to farmers and ranchers. Improving irrigation efficiency and upgrading diversion structures can help us adapt to rising temperatures that cause snow to melt and runoff earlier in the year. Early runoff means there is less water later in the season, when animals, plants, and irrigators all need water. Practicing irrigation strategies that encourage keeping rivers wet and implementing practices that increase groundwater storage support healthy waterways and support the needs of farmers and ranchers.
Riparian area management techniques like those mentioned in this article from Agri-Food Canada can benefit producers and the ecosystem. Try fencing livestock out of parts of the riparian corridor to support healthy riparian ecosystems. Livestock can cause erosion and water quality concerns – but well-planned access points that provide livestock with access to crucial drinking water can support both a healthy herd and a thriving waterway.
Farmers and ranchers want to see water in the river – the longer the better – which also supports the health and well-being of the aquatic ecosystem. Protecting our riparian areas is imperative; when our riparian corridors are healthy and thriving, so are we.
We Have a Choice
The future of agriculture is tied tightly to the future of our waters. Healthy ecosystems that have a variety of plants and animals are vital. Choosing innovative management strategies enables us to be good stewards of the natural world while also improving our farms and ranches so that we all can remain resilient in the face of drought and a changing climate.
Sensa Wolcott works as the Watershed Coordinator for the Mancos Conservation District. She is pursuing her Masters in Biology through Miami University’s Project Dragonfly, where her work focuses on community-based conservation and connecting people with the land through dialogue and collaboration. Sensa and her family live on their family owned and operated cattle ranch and enjoys hiking, camping, mountain biking, and photography.