3.1. Observed Climate Change Impacts on the Dairy Farm
Farmers participating in both the NY and WI focus groups reported an increase in extreme weather events on their farms in recent years and changes in the climate over the years they have been farming. Dairy farmers and advisors in both NY and WI reported more frequent extreme precipitation events and consequent shortened windows of time to work the fields (hereafter “shortened windows”). Shortened windows refer to the reduced amount of time in which the fields were dry enough to get in and plant, harvest, or do any practice that necessitates heavy machinery. This has led to both late plantings and late harvests. Participants of all six groups reported having experienced extreme precipitation leading to erosion, runoff, deposition, flooding, and wet fields, as well as drought and decreased precipitation, and all expressed concern about the effects of both too much and too little water.
As an example of the shortened windows concerns, one WI farmer noted how recent weather had affected his ability to spread manure within the regulatory guidelines of Wisconsin:
… one concern is… about Wisconsin rules, …I think if you’re a certain size farm, there’s a calendar date that you have to meet to apply manure, and given this crazy weather, in some years, maybe some of the best time to haul manure is when the calendar says you can’t. And so if you’re trying to match extreme weather events with policy that’s based on an arbitrary date, that’s frustrating when the policy closes the window too (WI Farmer).
One NY focus group also expressed concern about increased erosion caused by extreme rains combined with the fact that some farmers had cut down trees and hedgerows between the fields. According to an advisor in Cortland, NY, the field sizes in his region are relatively small, so farmers often cut down trees between fields to increase their tillable acreage and facilitate manure spreading with draglines:
I think your average field size is under 20 acres … and that’s a negative to me because what the doing is they’re ripping out… hedgerows to make them bigger …now we’re losing soil from these extreme weather events, and it’s just washing down the longer slopes that we have and no longer have hedgerows between (NY Advisor).
Flooding and heavy rain is a significant concern to farmers. A WI farmer discussed a recent event near his property:
…probably the biggest thing is we live in the hills, and water likes to run downhill, so last August we were in that major flood where it took out a bunch of roads…; But it probably wasn’t so much that that caused us tremendous problems; when you have to figure out how to get a milk truck in, because so many roads are washed out, that’s not fun. But then it wasn’t but two weeks later when they started getting things up and running again that we got another 5 inches. And it was fast. It seems like we no longer get mediocre rains. We either get a bunch, or nothing. This year the same thing (WI Farmer).
Droughts and dry periods between rainfall events are also a concern, but some of the participants state that modern hybrid seed varieties and technology such as drought and rot resistant hybrids have alleviated some of the risk. One advisor from Wisconsin noted the drought of 2012, while similarly severe to one which occurred in 1988, caused significantly fewer losses due to new, more drought tolerant hybrids.
2012 was close; 2005 was bad for us, but even then… (With) the modern-day varieties, hybrids we have, it’s gotta be pretty severe. They can hang in there and hang in there, and finally it rains. And it comes around like you wouldn’t believe (WI Advisor).
Decreased snowfall has also had impacts. One WI farmer noted the change in snowfall as follows:
I’ve even noticed that… we’ve had a lot less snowfall, and so we’ve had a lot less covering over the winter and having to deal with winter kill and things like that, and the amount of liquid that’s going into your pit from the snow has dramatically changed (WI Farmer).
Less snow cover leads to less insulation of the soil and plant growth underneath, which affects the winter kill of cover crops, and when the ground will be ready to work. If there is not sufficient freezing to kill cover crops, then herbicides may be used instead. If the soil freezes deeper because of the lack of snow insulation, the fields could stay frozen longer, which could affect planting times. Also, with less snow, there is less water during snowmelt that goes into the manure storage pit. In sum, these dairy farmers and advisors report having observed changes to weather patterns over the past few decades, and that these changes have had serious impacts on their farm operations.
3.2. Management Practices and Decision Making
When asked about adaptation practices that they were implementing to respond to the perceived climate impacts, dairy farmers and advisors in NY and WI stated that they were already employing resilience practices such as reduced till or no-till, installing tile drainage, which is a subterranean drainage system to get water off the fields so the fields can be worked, cover cropping, purchasing different equipment, shifting planting times, putting a ‘retainer’ on manure spreaders and other machinery operators, and new manure handling techniques. These practices (summarized in Table 3
) were often adopted in response to perceptions of shortened windows, soil erosion, and water quantity and quality issues in addition to changing soil and water conservation.
One WI dairy adviser suggested that a shift towards no-till allows farmers to get out into the fields sooner after heavy rainfall events:
… with the weather events, the heavy rainfall, …with their no-till ground, you can get on the ground way quicker than if you have tilled ground… when silage comes off, they recognize the importance of getting rye on it, with every farmer I work with it’s automatic: winter rye goes on it as quick as they can (WI Advisor).
The importance of getting out onto the field as quickly as possible to adapt to the shortened windows was a common motivator for the adoption of both larger and smaller machinery and 4-wheel drive tractors.
We sold our equipment, and then hired in bigger equipment. … more or less just for forage quality, but it all comes back to the window. The window’s only so big (WI Farmer).
Working fields during these shorter windows can cause soil compaction and damage, which decreases soil health. One WI farmer was very concerned about the consequences of this trend:
One of my concerns is that, when the window shortened up, we’re pushing it… I know that we’re doing more subsoil structure damage … when the corn silage is ready the corn silage is ready. …instead of using trucks, we were using dump carts with the big tractors to basically mud it out, and that damage had to be fixed (WI Farmer).
Some manure haulers have purchased more equipment to spread manure faster when the opportunity to spread exists. A NY adviser highlighted this trend:
… talking to our manure haulers, they’ve invested in more equipment because their windows are getting so much shorter, everybody needs it right now, so those guys, they can’t be everywhere at once. And as farms grow that’s usually something that’s custom done, so those guys are really having problems with shorter windows, trying to get everybody taken care of, and it’s just really tough (NY Advisor).
While many farmers purchased larger equipment to get more done in less time, some are buying smaller, lighter equipment to reduce soil compaction:
And our equipment is smaller and lighter so we can go in on one fields and not cause compaction issues…because we aren’t running the heavy equipment we can go in and we can get on grounds maybe a little bit wetter…(NY Farmer).
A Cortland, NY advisor talked about how farmers have had to switch to 4-wheel drive tractors due to the need to spread manure in almost all the weather conditions:
…let’s face it; pretty much every farm has a 4-wheel drive tractor nowadays. That didn’t use to be a regularity…the smaller farms got by without them. They stockpiled manure if they needed to…and now they don’t do that. They know from an environmental perspective, and for a lot of reasons, that they’ve got to be able to get up there and spread every day, even in bad weather… so… we’ve seen everybody’s got a 4-wheel drive tractor (NY Advisor).
Farmers often frame these adaptations around farm profitability, rather than ecological or resilience concerns; as exemplified by the following quote from a NY farmer discussing his decision to install tile drainage:
But on the years you need them…tiling ground, tile drainage… [it’s like] money in the bank (NY Farmer).
A NY Adviser stated that economic reasons motivated the decision to plan Triticale more than resiliency—even though planting Triticale as a cover crop can have both economic and environmental benefits:
You understand though that then there’s that economic connection too because Triticale keeps their options open. They can take it off again in the spring and have some extra forage (NY Farmer).
Dairy farmers and advisors in both NY and WI were concerned with the ongoing viability of their operations. One NY farmer asked why he should care about ten years from now if he is going to be out of business in five. Many farmers see adaptation as a fundamental part of a successful farming operation:
I would say that we’ve always kind of adapted…. I think we’re managing everything tighter, be it grid sampling, to accurate nutrient management, to seed placement (WI Farmer).
An advisor from NY summarized the reasons for adaptations as follows:
I think… (the reasons for adaptations) are linked between the stewardship and the economic… On the field crop side, soil loss, a visual soil loss, making farms go back to putting in more strips or making sure that their grass waterways are kept in place and being more conscientious about giving instructions about not plowing those up when they’re plowing up fields, not spraying. Cover cropping, dedicating personnel to be a cover cropper as they’re taking corn off. We never saw that on farms before. They’ve dedicated equipment and a person to that event (NY Advisor).
Manure handling and herbicide use have also been changing in response to extreme weather changes. A Wisconsin advisor noted that manure application rates have been declining due to better nutrient management, regulatory restrictions, and the weather:
Manure application rates, it’s been interesting to watch that, particularly in the Northeast with our heavy clays, where 30 years ago it was not uncommon to put on 30, 40, 50,000 gallon application rates…now those application rates continue to drop dramatically, and part of it’s from nutrient management, pressure, and regulatory issues, but I think a lot more of it is reaction to weather; like you guys said going at lower rates and spreading it out in more multiple locations, and I’ve probably got some form of slow release nitrogen going on almost every acre now, I would have never did 3-4 years ago; that is taking off along with cover crops and things like you guys talked about (WI Advisor).
The same advisor noted how precipitation changes have caused some farmers to shift from post-emergent to pre-emergent weed killers/herbicides:
But also even herbicide applications have changed…we’ve shifted way back into the pre (emergent), so they’ve got that protection on there, they just cannot chance…after rains and worry about trying to get that post-emergent application on, so they’ve done more pre’s, so that’s been a definite shift, I think it’s been because of the weather a lot of it… (WI Advisor).
In sum, farmers are adopting practices that are part of the toolbox of climate change adaptation practices—even though they may be adopting them to address issues of stewardship, compliance with regulations, economics, and extreme weather, rather than simply responding to climate change impacts.
3.3. Climate Change Beliefs
While none of the dairy farmers in NY and WI expressed anti-climate science views, many were uncertain of the drivers of change, or whether the changes are relevant to their operations. Dealing with climate variability is, after all, “just farming”:
They’re used to dealing with Mother Nature so this to some degree…isn’t…different than it’s always been…every day their whole life, their whole career…they’re used to just being at the whim of the weather… (WI Advisor).
One NY advisor spoke of the resilience of dairy farmers:
… they’re the greatest…survivalists out there…because…they have to survive, they have to adapt, they have to…be resilient.
Another farmer shared similar sentiments regarding how farmers have to “evolve” with the changes in the environment: “I think as the climate and environment evolve, we have to evolve with it.” Many farmers expressed little interest in establishing the causes of climate change, instead saying that they’ll do what’s right for their farm:
I think that we are seeing changes; whether it’s our fault, I’ll leave that up to God, but it makes economic sense to keep carbon in the soil where it belongs; it really does, that’s where a lot of our money comes from… (NY Farmer).
Some farmers did express their firm belief in the anthropogenic causes of climate change, however:
I personally believe in the past 100 years burning all these fossil fuels, and 95% of the scientists believe that we’re having an effect. And I believe that we are (WI Farmer).
3.4. Climatic and Non-Climatic Risk Perceptions
To understand how dairy farmers and their advisors were prioritizing climate change in their decision making, the participants were asked to reflect on what they perceived as the primary risks to their operations or others with which they are familiar. Participants identified risks and concerns about climatic and non-climatic issues. The climatic risks—especially increased extreme weather—were intertwined with and tended to have an amplifying and multiplying effect on the non-climatic risks such as regulation, threats to profitability, and a shortage of high-quality labor. Of the non-climatic risks, regulatory risks emerged in all six groups, profitability risks were discussed in five out of six groups, and labor risks came up in four out of six groups. Farmers and advisors expressed the importance of minimizing and managing risks. One Wisconsin advisor referred to both advisors and farmers as “risk reducers:”
I think we’re hired as risk-reducers. I think farmers are trying to be risk reducers too… (WI Advisor).
All of the groups consistently highlighted regulation as a concern. As one advisor in Wisconsin noted:
…regulatory risk is just unbelievable…. What we’ve got currently is bearable… We certainly help our clientele comply with regulatory issues, but it just looks like what’s coming down the road is just unbelievable. So, how that’s going to be addressed, it’s hard to tell (WI Farmer).
Farmers expressed frustration over how the written regulations were inconsistently interpreted by regulators. Two WI farmers expressed exasperation over this inconsistency:
We have a huge amount of clients that have complied with the DNR regs [Department of Natural Resource regulations], put in manure pits, put in grass water strips, spent 30 to 50,000 dollars on consultants because nobody else pays for that anymore; and now have to redo that 2 years later when it was just done in ’14 to ’15. Now the new DNR guys come out with 4 people and say you’ve got to redo this all… I’ve never seen so much frustration in that environment in my life… (WI Farmer).
Regulatory requirements are usually associated with Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), and they can impose significant restraints on farmers’ day-to-day operations and come with additional management and record-keeping obligations. One farmer in Wisconsin described the difficulty of balancing the needs of his operation with the requirements of environmental regulations:
… with the DNR regulations wanting to say, well, you can’t do this within so many hours of a such-and-such rain. Well, you don’t know it’s going to be a 1- inch rain, and you go out and spread anyway… it gets really hard to manage that sort of activity. They want everything so they can write it down on a piece of paper to know that you followed the rules exactly, and you just can’t do it (WI Farmer).
Market volatility was also a common concern. Climate impacts such as the drought of 2012 made feed and forage more expensive due to increased scarcity in a dry season, changing how some famers manage their feed inventory:
…2012 probably changed how people manage their inventories; you’re never going to be short on feed ever again… because if I don’t have that feed then I can’t feed my cows, and buying it’s really tough. So everybody just grew more inventory (WI Farmer).
Price volatility in the conventional milk market was perceived as a significant risk. One NY farmer emphasized that as global markets for US-produced milk products expand, prices are increasingly impacted by global trade:
… in dairy we export more and more of our product and… if you… lose the export markets, then it’s all flooded back on the domestic (market); it becomes a profitability problem because milk prices tank, so... you certainly want to continue to have dairy products flowing out of the United States… rather than all stuck here (NY Farmer).
Another summarized the influence of exports with some statistics:
In the last 20 years, we’ve gone from like 3.5%... to a high of 17% exports, and we’re back down to 14%, which was enough… to crash (the market for dairy)… (NY Farmer).
These factors, along with the stress of extreme weather events, increase the stress on dairy producers in both states. Another commonly voiced concern was the scarcity of qualified labor. This issue was raised in four out of the six groups; one Wisconsin farmer said that the concern for labor keeps him up at night:
…labor, it’s always a concern; you know it’s a pretty labor-intensive deal we’re in, that keeps me up sometimes. (WI Farmer)
One NY farmer described how labor is sometimes in short supply because the demand for haymaking and spreading manure happens for many farmers at once—often during a shortened window when the weather will cooperate:
Because I mean we ran into this; I think the three of us have all called the custom guy the same day. When everybody cuts their hay about the same time and everybody wants to spread [manure] about the same time and that’s that so you pass the custom guy, you don’t get to the farm (NY Farmer).
Sometimes, the shortage of labor is exacerbated by the shortened windows mentioned above, so farmers have been changing practices to get as much done with the available labor in the shortest time possible. Some farmers are changing crop rotations away from hay to better cope with these shortened windows and the scarce labor supply:
… there’s been a lot of changes… Larger farms have been way ahead on these sort of things because labor is difficult and so when you have wet conditions or conditions that are… unusual they need to make the most of the time that they have… anything from small square bales to larger round bales to large square bales to putting up more haylage than dry… They’ve gone to growing wheat as a source of a cover crop seed, and… the straw that comes off the wheat now becomes a supplement to nutrition like the dry hay was but … also used for bedding, and … there’s been a definite transition in the cropping rotation. We never grew as many soybeans. We never grew as much wheat… all those acreages came out of what was dry hay at one time (NY Farmer).
Although farmers extensively commented on the importance of non-climatic risks, they considered multiple risks simultaneously, including climate change. One farmer noted that decision making needed to address climatic threats, public perceptions, and regulations all at once. Thus, despite the fact that the climate risks were often subsumed under profitability risks, many of the farmers noted that climate risks, especially vulnerability to extreme weather events, were factors in their decision making.
Farmers are also concerned about their relationships with the non-farming public, as they face increasing consumer choice pressure, scrutiny of their conservation practices, and a growing number of non-farming suburban neighbors. Concerns regarding consumer pressures were expressed by five out of six focus groups. A WI farmer described the financial and environmental effects of consumer choice pressure related to recombinant bovine somatotropin (rbST) and genetically modified (GMO) crops:
I think one of the big things that’s moving forward now is the disconnect between the consumers and the farmers, so you know we have rbST which is if we’re going to talk about sustainability, talk about saving the planet, things like that, probably one of the best, most well-researched products in the history of the world, that we’re not going to be able to use anymore; the effect of that is that people are going to milk more cows, gonna have more manure, gonna use more water, gonna use more feed, all those different things, because your income took a 10% hit, and you don’t just replace that; now we’re looking at GMO crops being a negative thing, and again, if I have to go across my field once, maybe twice, because I no-till plant, and I spray it once, and harvest it once, that’s three trips across the field, but if we have to not be able to use some of the technologies we have, and we have to cultivate and we have to do different things, we’re using more fossil fuels and so, the disconnect between the consumers asking for something and the true benefit that they’re really getting... (WI Farmer).
Farmers also expressed a strong sense that dairy and agriculture in general suffers from a negative public image, even though they are environmental stewards:
I think we need to be very careful because when you talk with the general community and you say agriculture, they think all of agriculture. We don’t have a lot of feedlots in New York State. We have a lot of dairies that are actually carbon negative and so that message is not getting involved. I live in a very liberal community who got enticed by this Albany/New York State Go Vegan Lunch Program, and I had to end up writing a huge letter writing campaign because they were turning all the kids in our district against agriculture because they are so, are contributing so much to the global issue of global warming and that’s not the case with our dairy farmers (NY Farmer).
Just as farmers were motivated to adapt their farms for economic reasons, their concerns about what society understood about agriculture also appeared to be primarily framed from a financial perspective. Participants were concerned about additional risks arising from growing anti-agriculture sentiments, and that constraints were being imposed on their operations by people with little understanding of the realities of the dairy business.
3.5. Sources of Information
Farmers reference a variety of information sources that inform their decisions [51
]. One WI Advisor described farmers as willing to use any source of information necessary to reduce risk, including their own experience:
…they’re looking at any source of information they can get a hold of, whether it be Climate Corp, or NOAA, or wherever else. You know a lot of those guys, they’ve been farming for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, so they’ve kind of got a handle on it too… they can predict the weather better than the weatherman... (WI Advisor).
But not all information sources are viewed equally. Most influential are generally peers, family, farm advisors, farming neighbors, marketers, internet sites (weather and farming groups) and University Extension. Farming peers are a primary source:
I think we all feel about the same, it’s just we have to be willing to adapt and do different things and look at how our neighbors do it. I’m going to look [at] what they’re doing… to see what they’re doing and… say “hey look that field looks great, what’d you do there? … and that field looks terrible. Mind telling me what you did wrong? (WI Farmer).
Farmers also receive information from salespeople and industry. However, this information may be seen as less trustworthy. A NY farmer spoke of the paradoxical need for, and skepticism of, information coming from salespeople:
But generally, you learn from the people that… (information) actually comes down retail channels, which is always a pain because you don’t know whether to trust them… but they’re the ones that show up at the door… (NY Farmer).
This simultaneous dependence on salespeople and slight distrust of their impartiality was also expressed by a WI advisor:
Part of its technology, because in our area we’ve got a couple dealers that have really pushed that idea of side dressing dry fertilizers; they’ve invested in the equipment to get that done which opens up the possibility to plan that, as opposed to this is an emergency situation, we need to do some side dress, where do we find some equipment. Now we’ve got a fertilizer dealer actually promoting it with the equipment. And I’m not sure if they’re responding to weather, or just it’s a way to lengthen out their season as well (WI Advisor).
Another NY farmer confirmed that salespeople and private consultants are imperative because, from his point of view, a farmer just cannot be an expert in the many technical aspects of farming. Here is what he had to say about industry specialists:
…[information] always seems to come through the industry specialists… I was petrified when I graduated… I forgot what I knew, and I don’t know enough, and this sucks, and I’m an idiot, and boy this is rough. Then you just realize you don’t really have to know anything, but you’ve got to know someone who does, your nutritionist is a way better nutritionist than you are (NY Farmer).
Industry groups disseminate information to farmers through newsletters, factsheets, websites and journals. One NY advisor gets a lot of his information from Wisconsin through the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin (PDPW):
…I just looked at their [PDPW] website yesterday… they have all their trainings categorized online in webinar form so you can click on them, and if you wanted, they have calves, and they have things about hooves… and I look at Pennsylvania’s… but Wisconsin by far is providing that opportunity for… a webinar… you can watch at your leisure when you have time… if you need information to know about heat stress… it’s all there… (NY Advisor).
Sources of weather and climate information included television, radio, websites and apps for mobile devices. Weather Underground, Weather Bug, Accuweather, the National Weather Service, and NOAA were mentioned as useful sources. For example, ‘Weather Underground’ was cited in three out of the six groups. A NY farmer reported that he likes Weather Underground better than other sources because it includes data from a station that is very near his fields, and it provides estimates for how much precipitation will fall along with the probability:
Weather Underground is more precise, they’re not always more accurate. They will tell you you’re going to get 4.12 inches of rain you know between set hours… (NY Farmer).
Ideally, this farmer would like the weather forecasts provided to be more precise and more accurate, a desire expressed multiple times in these groups. None of the participants identified information from scientific research forums or climate panels as sources of information about weather and climate for their operations, nor did they cite any sources of seasonal or longer-term forecasts as significant to their decision making. This underscores a reality that farmers are not accessing the most recent climate change science to inform their decisions and rely on Extension, consultants, or companies as translators or a bridge to recent research.
summarizes the emergent themes along with some emblematic quotes from this study.
Farmers and their advisors in NY and WI are perceiving the impacts of climate change on their dairy farms. Dairy stakeholders were both exposed and sensitive to many climate-related impacts, as per a conceptual framework of vulnerability [17
] which had implications for their adaptive capacity. However, the elements of vulnerability—exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity—varied among individual farmers and advisors and across focus groups.
From the perspectives of exposure and sensitivity, participants indicated that the impacts most severely affecting operations were extreme precipitation events, drought and wet conditions, and to a lesser extent heat stress and other temperature-related effects. These climate variables align with those whose changes are projected to most seriously affect agricultural production in the Northeastern and Midwestern US [12
]. The various effects of extreme precipitation events, including erosion and the shortened windows, appear to elicit the most vulnerability, aligning with previous findings in the Northeastern and Midwestern regions [13
Focus group participants indicated that they possessed the adaptive capacity to be able to address the risks posed by a changing climate. As indicated through these focus groups in NY and WI, farmers have begun to implement many adaptive practices that are relevant to the region, including shifting planting and harvesting dates, experimenting with new crops or varieties along with new crop rotations, improving drainage, utilizing cover crops, and switching to reduced tillage or no-till practices [13
]. As noted in previous studies [13
], these findings reinforce that personal experiences with extreme weather events are a prime motivator for adaptation. Importantly, in this study, the extreme weather events raised by participants served to amplify and multiply existing risks such as restrictions from manure regulations, risks to profitability, and access to high quality labor.
4.1. Climate Change as a Risk Multiplier
As established in this work, farmers do not view climate change as a clear and present risk to their operations in and of itself. Instead they are focused on ongoing risks of a type that have been familiar to farmers for decades or longer, such as soil loss, rainfall and drought, regulatory restrictions and uncertainty, market pressures, and other issues that impact the day-to-day and year-to-year management of their operations. This is supported by other work on climate risk perceptions [8
]. However, many of these issues could well be exacerbated by a changing climate.
Consequently, it would be reasonable to frame climate risk not as a new independent risk factor considered separately from existing threats to the stability of farm systems, but rather as a risk multiplier that has the potential to increase the severity and/or frequency of some existing risk factors. Climate change can be expected to increase weather variability, leading to more frequent droughts and extreme rains. This in turn increases the risk of soil loss and the difficulties of nutrient management. These uncertainties hen feed into the regulatory and market spaces.
The opportunity that this presents is to frame climate risk not as a new, separate, and distinct threat to producers, but rather as an amplification of pressures for which they already have adaptation strategies. One distinct message that was presented multiple times in our focus groups was the idea that dealing with risk is “just farming”; farmers have existing skillsets that allow them to address these issues, and they are confident in their ability to do so. Farmers repeatedly stated the need for improved weather forecasting and so demonstrated their openness to advanced meteorological products. This same openness could potentially be leveraged to link climate risk to their ongoing decision-making processes while reducing the risks of politicization and blaming that reinforce their sense that they are serving as scapegoats to the broader public.
An example of how climate change may be having a multiplier effect on other risks is highlighted in the shortened windows during which fields are sufficiently dry to be worked without causing damage. These shortened windows can create competition among farmers for the same labor and equipment, such as manure haulers and spreaders, planters, and harvesters at the same time, and thus the dairy farmers’ adaptive capacity can be diminished when multiple risks are simultaneously compounded.
Conversely, during drought conditions, feed prices rise, threatening farm profitability. Thus, narrow profit margins affect adaptive capacity, assuming that milk prices do not compensate for increased prices of inputs. Therefore, according to these farmers and advisors, adaptive capacity is dependent on profitability because it costs extra money to adapt and to prepare for future extreme events. The more profitable businesses can afford to adapt and take a risk on implementing new, experimental resilience practices, while farmers whose profit margins are relatively tight have less adaptive capacity.
Adaptation to the shortened windows was occurring in both states, but in different ways. In WI, the response to these events seemed to be with bigger, heavier equipment, which often led to soil compaction that had to be repaired. In contrast, the NY farmers and advisors in this study implied that the relatively small, sloping fields of NY were not as conducive to large equipment, but four-wheel drive tractors were necessary, and sometimes smaller equipment was required to get on the fields as soon as possible without causing as much compaction. This finding may have been a result of our sampling. However, as many of the Wisconsin farmers were from areas with larger, flatter landscapes. Adaptations in Wisconsin would be expected to differ in the hills that are more similar to the farms studied in NY.
4.2. Manure Handling
Reported methods of manure handling differed between the two states. Draglining and injectors were very common among WI famers and advisors, while NY groups emphasized manure haulers and spreaders. As with the equipment differences described above, geography, especially topography, is likely a factor in the adoption of draglining in particular. Draglining is more difficult on hilly terrain where the fields often have trees between them as buffer zones, riparian zones, and shelterbelts. In order to add draglines, some operations are removing trees and field barriers to expand the fields to allow them to drag the lines. This could influence soil erosion, runoff, and water quality. Perhaps as importantly, the shortened windows issue compounds challenges for applying manure to fields by any method.
4.3. Climate Change Beliefs
The expressed beliefs on climate change were varied. Most farmers expressed that the recent climate differed significantly from earlier years. However, there was not broad agreement on whether this was due to variability within a stable climate, a changing climate due to natural processes, or a changing climate caused by human activities. Ultimately, farmers seemed not to feel that this was a relevant question to them in their decision making; reacting to the weather, whatever it might be, is something they feel is just a normal aspect of farming.
Many farmers expressed skepticism of anthropogenic climate change, and they were generally not adopting mitigation practices. Although some of the selected adaptation strategies such as rotational grazing and no-till may also contribute to mitigation, the mitigative benefits were generally coincidental rather than a purposeful, primary goal. The advisors did mention the role of cover crops and other practices that can have both mitigative and adaptive value as being especially useful. However, the lack of mitigation mentioned has implications for agricultural resiliency, both now and in the future. As others have noted [15
], failure to undertake mitigation is problematic, both in achieving national emissions reductions targets and in preventing future extremes of climate change. In other words, lack of mitigation efforts now could influence the ability of farming operations to remain resilient to climate change in the future.
Although personal climate change beliefs do appear to inform farmer actions, their influence on adaptation practices should not be overstated. Others [54
] have reported that farmers’ intentions to adapt to climate change do not often translate to actual adoption in some contexts. Furthermore, the findings of our study indicate that the focus group participants often prioritized financial concerns when making farm management decisions. Although the dairy farmer participants could financially justify practices with immediate operational benefits (installing tile drainage), others with higher costs (investing in solar panels) or operational challenges (cover crops) were prohibitive. This supports findings from that a substantial barrier to on-farm adaptation is farmers believing that the costs of doing so are too high [12
]. These financial concerns again have implications for adaptive capacity: if farmers perceive that the costs of implementing new techniques or technologies are too high, farmers will be limited in their options to adapt to or mitigate climate change. In turn, failure to incorporate new techniques or technologies may exacerbate vulnerability in the future as climate change intensifies.
4.4. Economic Risks
Economic and financial concerns among farmers were not limited to climate impacts on their farms. According to the focus group participants, climate change did not pose the greatest risk to their farms. Instead, they perceived vulnerability in their long-term economic viability due to negative public perception of agriculture, burdensome regulation, and global trade politics which affect supply and demand. Although farmers in this study were implementing many practices that increase climate resiliency such as adopting no-till, planting cover crops, and increasing soil health, climate change was not the primary driver of these decisions. This too reinforced findings [12
] that planners should pursue adaptation and mitigation strategies that simultaneously address multiple concerns. For example, adaptation to flooding and wet fields that can also increase profitability may be well-received among farmers. Consequently, both communicating the existing adaptation and mitigation strategies that have multiple benefits and developing new strategies with multiple benefits provides an approach to ease the economic worries of farmers.
4.5. Limitations of the Study
We view the findings of this study as exploratory, and they should be further assessed as future studies continue to build the emerging evidence on dairy farmer and advisor perspectives on climate change in the Northeast and the Midwest. As a qualitative study, the intent was not to generalize but to provide rich description, particulars and specifics from the participants [49
]. In the future, qualitative studies exploring similar themes should expand the sample size to diversify and saturate perspectives and ensure that the voices of demographic sub-categories (race, gender, etc.) are considered [50
]. For future quantitative studies, random sampling that covers dairy in the locations of interest should be pursued to ensure generalizability. Despite the limitations, the findings nonetheless provide important insight. Future studies that utilize the themes which emerged from this study will be based in solid initial evidence.