Surviving Climate Change Starts With Heat-Proofing the Cow
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- In the hour after dawn, the cattle ranches north of Lake Okeechobee become an almost fantastical rendering of bucolic bliss. Perfect Florida sunshine rolls across miles of fire-hued grass, silhouetting idle cows in twos and threes, backlighting patches of slender, bushy-topped Sabal palms with bursts of orange and red. It’s as if a cowboy story had been illustrated by Dr. Seuss.
Then the heat starts. On a typical summer day, the temperature here breaks 80F by 9 a.m., 90F by early afternoon. And it’s only getting hotter. Of the 10 warmest months on record, all but one have come since 2016. The average temperature over a 24-hour period has exceeded 88F only nine times since 1953; eight of them were in the past three years.
Heat affects cattle in subtle ways, none of them good. On these ranches, a cow’s job is to give birth every year, for as many years as she can, to calves that are sent north to the corn states for fattening and slaughter. When the air gets too hot and humid, the cows’ immune systems falter, making them more vulnerable to parasites and disease. They eat less. Some wander off the grass and seek shelter in the trees, while others just lie down, stupefied. Their odds of getting pregnant fall. When cows stop becoming pregnant, they become hamburger instead.
These animals are expensive to replace. It follows that as the temperature rises in this southeastern part of Florida, which has more large ranches than any other place in the country, the steaks Americans consume will get more difficult and costly to produce. So for the past three summers, genetics researcher Raluca Mateescu has climbed into a van with a gaggle of graduate students and driven to a ranch here, where they scrape, prod, pluck, and otherwise irritate hundreds of sweaty cows. A professor at the University of Florida, Mateescu is looking for a secret: how to breed heatproof cattle that still taste good.
If she succeeds, she could help insulate the cattle industry from the effects of global warming, at least for a time. But the implications of her research are more sweeping than whether rib-eye has a future. In effect, Mateescu is probing the definition and scope of climate adaptation, which matters not only in the field of livestock science and agriculture but also in every other industry: How much, and how soon, will American businesses and consumers have to sacrifice as the planet heats up?
Insufficiently succulent steak may not be the first thing one thinks of when considering climate-induced cataclysm. But there’s arguably no type of human endeavor for which that question matters more, or for which the definition of adaptation is more consequential, than agriculture. Coastal cities going underwater, whole towns consumed by fire, waves of migrants, mass extinctions—each promises tragedy on a scale that remains difficult to comprehend, despite the increasingly specific and strident warnings of scientists. But for the foreseeable future, those aren’t existential threats: There are still higher and less combustible places to live. The failure of the world’s food system, even if it unfolded across decades, would be inescapable and calamitous.
Rising temperatures do more than harm plants and livestock; they also increase their need for water, draining reservoirs and leaving people less prepared for droughts. Warmer winters are a boon for pests, which survive longer, spread farther, and get hungrier. For every degree Celsius that temperatures rise, the volume of staple crops lost to insects will increase as much as 25 percent, according to a paper published in the journal Science last summer. For reasons scientists don’t yet fully understand, rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide reduce the amount of vitamins and minerals in plants—including grass, which means livestock have to eat more to get the same nutrients. Meanwhile, the United Nations projects global population will rise to 9.8 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. And unless we’re willing to clear more carbon-sucking forests, further accelerating the rate of global warming, the amount of land available for food production is effectively fixed.
But there’s one nondelusional reason for optimism: If agriculture is one of the industries most vulnerable to the effects of global warming, it’s also the human endeavor with the richest history of responding to environmental change. Row crops and livestock have been bred over centuries to resist cold, heat, rain, drought, pests, and more. Farming practices have changed, too: After the windstorms of the 1930s Dust Bowl stripped soil from the prairies, for example, farmers began planting cover crops between seasons, helping to prevent similar disasters in the future.
Still, James Giesen, a professor of agricultural and environmental history at Mississippi State University, says agriculture hasn’t faced an environmental threat approaching the scale and pace of climate change since at least the turn of the 19th century, when the boll weevil beetle began its slow spread north from Mexico. Once the parasite began ravaging the Texas cotton industry, researchers and government agencies acted. “You see this huge explosion of scientific research, of state support for farm programs,” Giesen says. Land-grant universities increased their focus on pesticides and other strategies, bringing their findings to farmers through the government-funded Cooperative Extension Service. The effort worked: Cotton suffered but wasn’t wiped out.
“If the boll weevil’s going to provide a lesson, it is that governments and institutions will respond if they understand the threat to be big enough,” Giesen says. “It had to reach that crisis moment. And that’s the question with climate change: When do you reach that crisis moment?”
From the perspective of today’s governments and institutions, the answer seems to be not yet. Public spending on agricultural research and development has fallen since 2009 in the world’s wealthiest countries, led by declines in the U.S., according to a Department of Agriculture report last year. The number of staff working on crop protection and environmental stewardship at the department’s Agricultural Research Service has declined by one-third over the past decade; President Trump’s 2019 budget request called for further reductions.
Private research alone can’t fill the gap, says Andy Knepp, director of environmental strategy and advocacy for Bayer AG. Despite the industry’s history of coping with weather challenges, this time is different. “The stakes are higher,” he says, “and the challenges are becoming greater.”
The University of Florida’s department of animal sciences is in a low-slung brown-brick building at the edge of Gainesville that could just as easily be a community library or a senior center. A sign on a bathroom door instructs students to stop spitting tobacco juice on the walls. Yet one lab holds a $500,000 device for analyzing DNA; another boasts a miniature guillotine that quantifies the precise tenderness of a morsel of beef.
Mateescu, who occupies a small ground-floor office, offers a similar lesson on the reliability of appearances. A slight woman with dark eyes and a subtle accent, she might at first seem an unlikely savior for the American cattle industry, with its Stetsons, F-350 trucks, and metacarpal-crushing handshakes.
Growing up in Bucharest, Mateescu studied biology and fell in love with genetics. She moved to the U.S. at 21, then got her doctorate from Cornell University, where she focused on sheep. In 2006 she took a faculty job at Oklahoma State University. “Oklahoma is one of the big cattle states,” she says, “so my research had to be in that.” Five years ago she transferred to Florida, which, like Oklahoma, is a land-grant university with an obligation to help farmers. In Gainesville, that meant figuring out what to do about the heat.
Difficulties aside, the concentration of cattle ranches in Florida is no accident. To the industry, grass is money, and the region’s temperate winters allow it to grow almost year-round, saving ranchers on the cost of hay and other backup feeds.
They pay the price with hot summers, which highlight a cruel twist of bovine genetics. Of the two types of beef cattle, the European-derived Bos taurus breeds, including Angus and Hereford, fare worse in the heat, because of their dark, thick coats. The Indian-derived Bos indicus breeds, chiefly Brahman in Florida, thrive in the heat and humidity with their light, short hair and superior sweat glands. But they tend to be lousy at marbling—producing the layers of fat between muscles that earn steaks the highest grade from the USDA and the highest prices at feedlots,steakhouses, and supermarkets. Tender, marbled meat is an Angus specialty and part of what turned it into a household brand.
Ranchers here, like those in other warm states, typically raise a crossbreed called a Brangus, which is five-eighths Angus and three-eighths Brahman. Their method of getting to that mix is genetically haphazard: Cattlemen know how much of each animal’s immediate ancestry is Brahman and Angus, but not which parts of each species’ genetic codes—and, by extension, which heat-resisting traits—have been passed on. “You can have three-eighths and I could have three-eighths, but it’s not the same three-eighths,” Mateescu says.
This approach has created enough heat tolerance for cows to survive Florida summers, but climate change is testing its limits. Two years ago, Mateescu won a USDA grant to search for a more precise genetic recipe. Each summer she and her team draw samples from more than 800 cows at a ranch in Okeechobee County, taking measurements including body temperature, hair length and thickness, and how much they sweat, then use a scale from 1 to 5 to grade each cow’s temperament. (The calmer the cow, the less it overheats.) They also study what matters to cattle producers, conducting back-fat ultrasounds to determine marbling levels and noting which cows later become pregnant.
Mateescu and her team extract DNA from each cow and send it to a private lab, which analyzes it for 250,000 genetic markers and returns the results on a massive spreadsheet. The team then runs statistical tests to determine which desired features correlate most strongly with which genetic patterns. Their challenge is to identify which genetic markers, among the thousands that are associated with the trait in question, actually produce that trait.
The ultimate goal, which Mateescu estimates is still two to three years out, is for ranchers to administer a simple blood test to each calf, indicating which animals have the best chance of withstanding brutal temperatures, without sacrificing the quality of the meat those animals or their offspring will produce. Wouldn’t it be easier, I ask, if, rather than spend millions of dollars and years of research to design well-marbled cows that can acclimatize to higher temperatures, Americans just acclimatized themselves to less marbled meat? “We have the money,” she responds after a beat. “And that’s what people like.”
Later that day, as we drive to a university-owned pasture to see some pure Brahmans, I venture into riskier territory: From the vantage point of greenhouse gas emissions, might the world not be better off if we all ate less steak anyway? Pound for pound, beef production generates about eight times the greenhouse gases as chicken, the result of the enteric fermentation that allows cattle to digest grass. The methane in cow burps accounts for almost a quarter of all the U.S. agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas emissions; worldwide, those burps generate around 6 percent of the total emissions related to human activity.
Mateescu is clearly familiar with this line of questioning. She concedes the premise but says the U.S. cattle industry is still low on the list of emitters. Moreover, “a lot of that land is land that you cannot use for anything else.”
Other researchers are coming around to this idea. Sasha Gennet, a senior scientist with the California-based Nature Conservancy, says cattle have climate benefits. Grazing lands make up at least one-third of the acreage of the Lower 48 states. About half that land is privately owned, Gennet says; if not for the cattle industry generating economic returns from that land, there would be pressure to build on it, releasing the carbon held by that soil into the atmosphere.
Grasslands can’t simply be used to raise other, less gaseous livestock, either. “You can’t take the entire Western U.S., which is dominated by cattle grazing, and have it be chicken grazing or pig grazing,” Gennet says. “Chickens can’t eat grass. Pigs can’t eat grass.” Enteric fermentation, in this view, is the price of converting grass to protein.
When we get to the pasture, Mateescu opens the gate to an enclosure of Brahmans. They’re the color of lightly toasted marshmallows, with humps on their back and ears like oversize catcher’s mitts. Despite being near-perfectly suited to Florida’s climate, Brahmans are mostly absent from its ranches, on account of nobody wanting to eat them. They also have a reputation for feistiness; the high school in Okeechobee named its mascot after them. As soon as I enter the pen, one cow lowers her massive head, meanders over, and playfully nudges my stomach, sending me sprawling.
Four hours south of Gainesville, the town of Okeechobee sits at the edge of its namesake lake. Among its 5,700 residents are many of the ranchers Mateescu is working to help. Aaron Stam is a technical adviser to the Brighton Seminole Reservation, the tribe from whose cattle Mateescu draws her samples. One still-warm afternoon in November, he shows me the group of cows he’s trying to train to eat smutgrass, an invasive species that research suggests is tied to rising carbon dioxide levels. “I’m a believer in climate change,” Stam says. The tribal elders feel the same way, he adds, having conceded that the hottest days were getting hotter. A big man who grew up in Iowa, Stam describes the unmeasurable shift when a cow gets too hot. “It changes their disposition. They become a little more wild and hard to deal with,” he says. “Kind of like you and me.”
The cattlemen in the area seem genetically predisposed not to complain—at least not to outsiders, and certainly not about the heat. “I try not to worry about things that I don’t have any control over,” Wes Williamson, a third-generation rancher, tells me over dinner one night at Lightsey’s, a restaurant on Okeechobee’s main strip. As I work through a ribeye the size of my head, Williamson describes purchasing a second cattle operation in Texas a few years ago, only to watch the rains dry up in 2011, the start of a dry spell that lasted years. “We bought the ranch just in time for the worst drought of the century,” he says, with scarcely more emotion than most people would employ to recount spilling their morning coffee.
A couple days later, Flint Johns, manager of the nearby Lykes Ranch, drives me through some of the ranch’s 337,000 acres of grazing land, citrus trees, sugar cane, eucalyptus, and pine timber. He’s responsible for 14,000 cows, making Lykes one of the country’s five biggest ranches. Johns has reddish hair, an endearing grin, and ears that protrude slightly under his cowboy hat. At 38, he comes off as boyish and upbeat. But when I ask what worries him most, he has a ready one-word answer: “Weather.” In 2017 this part of Florida had one of its driest springs, followed by an unusually wet summer. When it rains too much the fields flood. Wading through water causes cows to burn more calories, even as that water reduces the nutrient quality of the grass. Water brings mosquitoes, so the cows walk around all night, trying to avoid getting bitten. The pregnancy rate on the ranch, which usually hovers around 83 percent, fell that year to 77 percent. “That doesn’t sound like a big difference, but it is,” Johns says. (The rate bounced back last year.) Then, in September that year, Hurricane Irma hit, blowing down barns and wiping out half the ranch’s citrus crop. “We’re definitely having more extreme-weather events,” he says. “You can only mitigate to a certain point.”
Even with the toughest animals, the already thin margins of cattle operations depend on low feed costs. Dana Blumenthal, a rangeland ecologist for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, says the combination of rising temperatures and drought will “undoubtedly” push the cattle industry to the upper Plains states and Canada. That movement has already started: Feedlots, where calves are sent to gain weight before going to slaughter, depend on proximity to corn, and they’ve begun following the crop’s northward migration. “The question then becomes a social one: What is the level of disruption to people and economics that happens as that northward movement occurs?” Blumenthal asks. “What happens to the people who have been ranching for generations?”
Simply moving the industry up the map won’t keep meat eaters fed, either. Just because cooler climes can be found doesn’t mean the grass that grows there will suit the cattle, Blumenthal notes. And more carbon dioxide threatens the nutrition quality of all grasses, wherever they are. There are, in short, no easy long-term options for the industry.
The conundrum facing cattle lurks over every part of the food industry. Global warming is forcing farmers and ranchers to seek new ways of producing the same quantity and quality of food. If their efforts fail, they’ll have to decide what compromises—to taste, cost, availability, “naturalness”—they can make without alienating customers. Even compromise could fail, leading some types of food to become unavailable in any form, for any price.
Adaptation, for agriculture or any other industry, is likely to be a state of accelerating change with no endpoint—a gradual drift away from what we most want toward what we can best hold on to, from marbled steak to slightly less marbled steak, say, or to hamburgers, or to gelatinous bars of mashed-up insects à la Snowpiercer. We won’t know until it happens.
Thankfully, we’re not there yet. One snowy afternoon in January, I’m sitting in the corner of a dimly lit room at Ray’s the Steaks, a restaurant in Arlington, Va., that’s yet to open for the day. Michael Landrum, the proprietor, has set a pair of raw New York strip steaks cut from an Angus on the table in front of me. He points to the marbling: cream-colored ribbons, curving like footpaths on a treasure map. I ask what would happen to steakhouses if it suddenly became impossible to get a well-marbled steak. How worried should we be, culinarily speaking, about what might be lost if innovations such as Mateescu’s don’t succeed?
Landrum gamely lists some less succulent cuts, but rather than spend time describing their inadequacy, he has a cook put one of the New York strips on the grill, then walks away to prepare the place for dinner.
The heat causes the marbling to dissolve into the meat, which now glistens faintly, as if perspiring. After a few increasingly delirious bites, my perception of time wobbles; when Landrum comes back to talk more, I struggle to pay attention. Landrum, perhaps familiar with my expression, leaves me alone to finish my steak.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jillian Goodman at email@example.com, Jeremy KeehnJonathan Morgan
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