by Tamara Scully

A severe winter storm bringing ice and snow may be a regular part of the expected winter weather. Summer thunderstorms and tornados may be relatively common in your region. You may already know how to cool your livestock, or protect them from icy weather. You might have a generator on-hand, and extra fuel. And you are ready to plow, or to move the livestock into the barn if the weather takes a turn for the worst.

But these preparations may no longer be adequate due to climate change, which is bringing record-breaking storms, causing species shifts and disrupting long-established weather patterns. These unexpected events are going to become the norm as climate change consequences alter our environment in a variety of ways.

The Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions are predicted to see an increase of over 50 percent in the top one percent of heavy rain events, while rainfall in any given year will increase five to 15 percent in the next several decades. One-thousand-year storm events have happened twice in the same Pennsylvania region since 2016, with several months worth of rain occurring in hours. Flooding and landslides resulted, and 2018 was the “wettest summer on record,” Tony Buda, hydrologist with the USDA – Agricultural Research Service said. Some regions in Maryland and Pennsylvania had more than a foot of excessive rain, above normal levels, heading into the fall season.

Twenty-year storms, where more than five inches of rain fall in a day, are expected to occur at three times the rate they do currently. And heat extremes are increasing, too, resulting in periods of farm-level drought, interspersed with excessive rains, according to Buda.

Adapting to change

The first line defense is to understand what systems can be put into place to protect your farm from the devastating effects of changing weather patterns. Not only are crops threatened — meaning that adaptations to what you grow, and where or how you grow it will change — but livestock, equipment and buildings are at risk of succumbing to extreme events causing floods, mud slides, power outages and more.

Agroforestry is one tool that can be used to help mitigate negative impacts of climate change. Agroforestry practices can provide alternative crops, and these perennial plants can often survive flood conditions which will kill annual crops. The roots from perennial plants can prevent soil erosion, and can help to buffer waterways, protecting water from increasing temperatures and buffering fields from flooding. Edible crops from perennials can also feed livestock and humans, and provide diverse income streams for farmers.

There are ways in which farmers can “use agroforestry to help adapt and even prosper in some of these conditions,” Buda said.

Another consideration would be eliminating equipment use, such as mechanical harvesting, from zones closest to riparian areas. This helps to further protect and stabilize the soils to help them best function to corral waterways in storm events. Patricia Leopold, Northern Institute of Applied Climate Science, explained that “the idea is that people might do manual harvesting, and no mechanics and no soil disturbances.”

Diversity of species within riparian buffer zones also creates contiguous habitat for wildlife and insects, and provide woodland grazing opportunities via silvopasturing. Properly managed grazing not only provides forage, but helps to stabilize soils preventing erosion and runoff. Planting brambles, mushrooms, native nursery crops, native medicinal plants and other shade-adapted crops can be a way to manage changes due to weather extremes. And, this will enhance pollinator, bird and wildlife habitat as well.

“By planting some of these perennial crops, they can build more resilient systems,” Leopold said.

Protecting livestock and buildings

While enhancing conservation measures and diversifying to include perennial agroforestry crops are positive steps to help your farm — no matter what else you grow — survive during a time of severe changes in weather patterns, protecting your animals and farm buildings during these events takes planning, too.

Windbreaks are a tool for decreasing stressors from wind and blowing snow. Windbreaks also protect cropland from erosion, and protect from air-borne contaminants, and are used to protect both livestock and buildings from a variety of weather concerns. A windbreak can protect livestock facilities, protect livestock in pasture, increase feed efficiency in pastured livestock, and decrease energy costs for heating or cooling in buildings. Snow accumulation and drifting can be prevented or controlled via properly designed and sited windbreaks, allowing easier access to facilities.

Properly placing windbreaks, and selecting the best materials — trees, shrubs, fencing, or even hay bales — is critical. Wind speed reductions occur on both sides of a windbreak. On the windward side, windbreaks can afford protection for distances two to five times the height of the windbreak, and on the leeward side, protection is greater, up to 30 times the height of the windbreak, with the strongest zone of protection 10 to 15 times the height. Windbreak density is important, while width has less importance. Trees or shrubs within a windbreak can be multi-purpose crops, providing edible fruits and nuts, enhancing wildlife habitat or silvopasturing potential, and protecting riparian area, too.

Properly spacing building, at least 60 feet apart, can also help protect from snowdrift formation. Keeping equipment or feed out of this zone, too, is important. Facing buildings away from the prominent winter winds protects entrances from snow. Excessive snow buildup can cause roof collapse. If insulation is not adequate, snow can melt and cause icicles, which can then pull down the roof.

Melting snows can cause flooding, as can extreme rain events. If the average temperatures in the Northeast increase as expected, some areas used to winter snows might experience more ice or rain events instead. While freezing ground and snow cover can protect soils, muddy fields from excessive rains may make pasture access difficult, and cause increased soil erosion. If buildings are in danger of flooding or collapse, releasing livestock to seek higher ground may be the only alternative, but is the last resort if transportation isn’t feasible. Having a livestock disaster plan and communicating it to all team members is imperative.

As precipitation events increase, assessing the potential for flooding in previously dry areas is necessary. Are access lanes on high ground, or will they be unpassable in heavy rains? Do bridges over waterways need to be enhanced, and are culverts and storm drains adequately sized for additional precipitation amounts?

Power outages due to weather events are expected to become more frequent. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), having a working generator that is properly maintained, and knowing how to safely use it, is a must for every farm operation. Generators need to be hooked up safely to prevent power from returning to the grid, which can — and do — cause fatalities.

Weather happens. Whether it’s wind, precipitation or temperature extremes, the impact on the farm can be drastic. Erratic weather is expected to increase as the consequences of climate change. Destructive weather patterns, and atypical weather extremes, will become common occurrences.

Preparations for severe weather can’t be accomplished once the weather event is underway. Planning in advance for the worst-case scenario will help you weather lesser storms, and keep your family, your livestock and your livelihood protected no matter the weather.

The webinar, “Agroforestry and Climate Change in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic,” can be viewed here:

Preparedness resources for farms: