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Farmers Look For Ways To Protect Their Livestock During Climate Change

NOEL KING, HOST:

Just as people need to find ways to cool off in the summer, so do livestock. And the past few years for farmers, it's been a struggle.

Here's Dana Cronin from Illinois Public Media.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: It's feeding time on Borgic Farms in central Illinois. Hundreds of 12-week-old pigs are crammed into a long barn, climbing over each other to stick their snouts in feed. It's pushing 90 degrees today. And the air here is humid and heavy with the smell of pig manure.

Phil Borgic owns this farm. He just turned on eight massive cooling fans with six-foot blades to suck the hot air out of the barn.

PHIL BORGIC: And then if the temperature comes up like this afternoon, then - where it gets warm enough, then we'll turn on those waters. But the first thing that comes is a breeze. And then it gets warmer yet. Then we bring out the garden hose.

CRONIN: Borgic's parents bought the farm in the 1950s, when most livestock farming was done outside. They've since moved things indoors to help control the effects of increased temperatures on the pigs.

BORGIC: Our fans kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger so we could pull more through and over the top of the pigs then to get that heat out of there (ph).

CRONIN: Keeping the animals cool is essential not just for their comfort and health but also for their productivity.

Amanda Stone researches heat stress in dairy cows at Mississippi State University and says, milk production can decrease a whopping 25% when cows are too hot.

AMANDA STONE: So if a cow is producing a hundred pounds, during periods of heat stress, she's only producing 75 pounds.

CRONIN: And it's not just cows. It's goats too.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOATS BLEATING)

CRONIN: Every morning at 5 a.m., the 100-plus goats here at Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery outside Champaign, Ill., file in for milking.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILKING MACHINES)

CRONIN: Milk meters measure how much each goat produces per day. When it's hot, farm co-owner Wes Jarrell says, there's less milk. And he has noticed the changing climate is having an impact.

WES JARRELL: We've always known that in the summer heat, their production goes down. And we know just by looking at the records that the duration of that and the intensity of that is increasing.

CRONIN: Prairie Fruits Farm is pasture-based, meaning the goats spend most of their time outside, grazing on acres of grass and shrubs. The farm does have a couple of small barns, too. But Jarrell says they're making plans to build a bigger indoor facility, in part because it's getting harder to keep the goats cool enough.

JARRELL: In the summer, when it's going to be hotter and more humid, we need the best ventilation possible. And we need protection.

CRONIN: The price tag on that new barn is nearly $700,000. Climate experts predict that if we continue emitting greenhouse gases at the current rate, most of the summer in Illinois will consist of so-called dangerous heat days. And while that might make the 700,000-dollar barn worthwhile, Jarrell says they'll have to find a way to pay for it. And there are few options.

JARRELL: Obviously, what we need to do is make sure we can sell the product. And we can look at what customers are willing to pay.

CRONIN: So don't be surprised when you start paying a little more for your milk, pork or goat cheese. It may just be another cost of doing business in a changing climate.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "CLOUD FOREST")

KING: Dana's story came to us from Harvest Public Media. That's a Midwestern reporting collaborative focused on food and agriculture.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRACE BUNDY'S "CLOUD FOREST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.