When the Hot Comes to Iowa
Up until last week, the year had been weirdly cool in Iowa. A cool spring tripped into a cool early summer as the West and East coasts stewed in their own juices. I watched, knowing that it wouldn't last. In fact, I began to worry a little, a heat dome over Iowa with temperatures of 115 degrees would be bad, really bad since the humidity here is often in the 80 to 90 percent range. I have begun to learn about 'wet bulb' temperatures as I read more about climate change. It is a lot more useful measure, giving you a "feels like" reference and teaching us that a wet bulb temperature of 95 degrees can be fatal to humans. Most animals can take a little more heat than we can, but with our climate changing, the narrow range of temperatures ideal for all of us is being exceeded.
So what are we doing to prepare for the inevitable temperature changes?
I've become very careful when planning for my cattle's upcoming paddocks, watching the
weather constantly and figuring out how to incorporate trees and shade into each section of pasture. It is something that my dad never really had to worry about, as far as I can remember. The cattle just survived the heat as best they could, sometimes walking a quarter mile for water. But that was pre serious climate change. Now, I am grazing parts of the farm that dad never used because there are trees in these areas. Silvopasture has become a vital part of our farming with trees forming an existential safety net for the cows. Areas under shade can be 10 to 12 degrees cooler than sun drenched pasture. If you toss in the fact that black cows (as many of my older cows are) can have a skin temperature 10 degrees warmer than cows of other colors when standing in the sun, even a small group of trees can make a huge difference.
For the long term, we are planting more trees in pasture areas and adding watering facilities so that animals can reach water quickly and easily.
If the temperatures are going to be in the high 80's or 90's, I won't move cattle into a paddock unless it has trees, preferably a lot of trees. Tomorrow, the weather is supposed to drop the temperatures into the low 80's, the next day the high 70's, so I have a small window to put the yearlings onto ground with less shade. But as I go along it becomes clearer to me that all of my pastures are going to need to have extra trees planted so our animals can stay cool in a warming climate.
On the other hand, our goats are proving to be master heat managers, sitting out in the hot sun even when shade is available and drinking very little water (they get most of the water they need from the food they eat). It turns out that goats with horns are even better at surviving heat. The 90 degree temps that we have been experiencing seem to bounce off the kevlar Kiko goats like bullets off superman. The more experience I have with the goats, the more that I think that they are the way to go in the future. I may always have some cattle, but goats just seem to make more sense as our world heats up, but even these hot loving critters will have to have shade as the heat increases.
Our dog, Snooks, has always been a bit of a drama queen about the heat, usually finding a way to get inside the house where the air conditioning lives, then flopping tragicomically to the floor next to a vent. "Can you believe how hot it is?" she will say to me as she pants on the floor. "I'm not going back out there until I have properly cooled off!"
Of the chickens and turkeys, I can only say that they spend a lot of time in the tall grass breathing with their beaks open, gulping water often. I haven't done enough research to know how well they handle high temperatures, but they seem to be fine so far.
And as for Beth and I, we have become big fans of the siesta, time taken out of the heat of the day to rest in the relative cool of the house, resting after and before working in the mornings and evenings.
For you, dear readers, I suggest planting some trees. Make sure that the trees are a variety
that can survive the increasing temperatures and likely reduced rainfall. If you like a good read, check out "The Ministry for the Future" by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is science fiction, but about climate change and what we can do about this problem that is so overwhelming. Finally, support sustainable agriculture at a local level as best you can. Farmers farming sustainably can sequester a lot of carbon and sourcing your food locally will cut down on your own carbon footprint.
But the harsh reality - or the inconvenient truth as Al Gore put it - is that the way we live has to actually change. We cannot drive to the store for every last thing we need, buy endless stuff, fly everywhere we want to. We need to get that electric car even if it is not the most convenient vehicle for the road trip we take once a year, and invest in solar even if it doesn't pay for itself in a few years. We have to do more, now, or it will be too late. And it won't be just us who suffers, but our companions on this planet who cannot get up and move, cannot find air conditioning, cannot save themselves.