Lancaster County’s dairy farmers could be facing devastating drops in corn yields by 2050 because of global warming, according to a new research study.
“If climate projections hold, it will threaten the dairy industry in Lancaster County,” said Heather Karsten, an associate professor of crop production ecology at Penn State.
That’s because extremely high summer temperatures in Lancaster County could mute key reproduction phases in corn plant growth, decreasing yields for a winter feed that is a linchpin in affordable dairy farming, Karsten said in an interview with LNP.
The extreme temperatures — which are projected to be higher in Lancaster County than anywhere else in the Northeast — not only could retard reproduction at a critical time but could result in corn plants that mature faster but grow smaller, she said.
“We need all that biomass because most corn is harvested for silage,” Karsten observed.
Irrigation more common?
It’s also possible that because of more frequent dry periods Lancaster County dairy farmers will have to use irrigation systems for their corn crops to be healthy, as is common in the Midwest, said Karsten, who headed the study’s research team.
And planting of a second silage crop, such as winter wheat or rye, may be necessary to offset the loss in corn yields.
A longer growing season — with frosts that start later in the fall and end earlier in the spring, will likely allow such double cropping, Karsten noted.
Lancaster County’s Landisville was one of three specific locations studied for how climate change would affect dairy farming in the northeastern United States. The other locations in dairy centers are State College and Syracuse, New York.
The study was published this month in PLOS One, a nonprofit, peer-reviewed journal by the Public Library of Science.
Also participating in the study was another Penn State researcher as well as the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, which financed the study.
The study examined climate change projections from global climate models from the United States, Japan, France, United Kingdom, Germany, Australia and Russia.
Other studies on dairy
The latest study is not the first to foresee problems for dairy farmers from climate change.
A separate collaboration between Penn State researchers and federal agencies in 2017 predicted that temperature changes could decrease fertility in dairy cows.
Also, heat-induced inflammation and decreased feed intake may limit cows’ energy for producing milk, the study said.
That study also found that warmer temperatures could mean lower heating bills and an extended growing season for some crops.
In 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf announced Pennsylvania’s revised Climate Change Action Plan. As part of it, scientists at Penn State's Environment and Natural Resources Institute predicted pros and cons for the state’s farmers.
“Pennsylvania dairy production is likely to be negatively affected by climate change due to losses in milk yields caused by heat stress, additional energy and capital expenditures to mitigate heat stress, and lower levels of forage quality,” the report stated.