Climate Change and Dairy in New York and
Wisconsin: Risk Perceptions, Vulnerability,
and Adaptation among Farmers and Advisors
David Lane 1, * , Evan Murdock 2, Ken Genskow 2, Carolyn Rumery Betz 3and
Allison Chatrchyan 4
1Northeastern IPM Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
2Department of Planning and Landscape Architecture, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison,
WI 53706, USA
3Department of Soil Science, Madison, WI 53706, USA
4Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA
*Correspondence: email@example.com; Tel.: +1-315-237-9029
Received: 31 May 2019; Accepted: 27 June 2019; Published: 29 June 2019
Climate change impacts on agriculture have been intensifying in the Northeastern and
Midwestern United States. Few empirical studies have considered how dairy farmers and/or their
advisors are interpreting and responding to climate impacts, risks, and opportunities in these regions.
This study investigates dairy farmer and advisor views and decisions related to climate change using
data from seven farmer and advisor focus groups conducted in New York and Wisconsin. The study
examined how farmers and advisors perceived climate impacts on dairy farms, the practices they
are adopting, and how perceived risks and vulnerability aﬀect farmers’ decision making related
to adaptation strategies. Although dairy farmers articulated concern regarding climate impacts,
other business pressures, such as proﬁtability, market conditions, government regulations, and labor
availability were often more critical issues that aﬀected their decision making. Personal experience
with extreme weather and seasonal changes aﬀected decision making. The ﬁndings from this study
provide improved understanding of farmers’ needs and priorities, which can help guide land-grant
researchers, Extension, and policymakers in their eﬀorts to develop and coordinate a comprehensive
strategy to address climate change impacts on dairy in the Northeast and the Midwest US.
climate change; resiliency; impacts; dairy; farmers; advisors; perceptions;
1.1. Perceptions of Climate Change and Adaptation Strategies
Although the biophysical sciences have been predicting the impacts of climate change on
agriculture in the US, far less attention has been dedicated to understanding dairy farmer and advisor
perceptions and responses to extreme weather and climate change. Researchers have long recognized
that the simple transfer of knowledge is generally insuﬃcient to accomplish sustainable behavior
]. Studies regarding the adoption of new, innovative ideas, practices,
related to agricultural conservation [
] and climate change [
] reinforce the importance of
understanding the factors that motivate and/or prevent actors from adapting to and mitigating
change. In addition, this literature suggests that messages and interventions should be crafted in ways
that address these motivations and barriers.
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599; doi:10.3390/su11133599 www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 2 of 24
Several studies have concluded that the climate change information generated by scientists
must be made relevant to local contexts for farmers to ﬁnd it useful [
]. Some [
] highlight the
importance of taking farmer perspectives into account; they document how personal experiences with
climate-related events inform risk perceptions and help determine adaptation actions among Vermont
farmers. Others [
] found that those farmers who accept anthropogenic climate change are more
amenable to adaptive and mitigative action than those farmers who do not accept human causation of
Vulnerability is another key concept to consider in order to understand farmer perceptions and
actions related to climate change [
]. Vulnerability includes exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive
]. Exposure refers to the kind and intensity of impacts to which a system is subjected;
sensitivity is the degree to which these impacts aﬀect the system; and adaptive capacity represents the
potential for the system to maintain resilience when confronting climate stresses [
in a particular situation is determined by both biophysical and social processes .
Perceptions of risk associated with climate change are also important to consider because actions
are predicated on farmers’ understandings of the threats that exist. Some researchers [
that considering farmers’ perceptions of climate change is important to understanding their willingness
to adopt adaptation or mitigation strategies. Likewise, others [
] conclude that the perception of
climate change as a risk is an important factor that precedes adaptive or mitigation action.
Adaptation can be deﬁned as an “adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual
or expected climatic stimuli or their eﬀects, which reduces vulnerability, moderates harm, or exploits
beneﬁcial opportunities” [
] (p. 60). Adaptations can be seen as evidence of adaptive capacity
and therefore vary depending on the speciﬁc vulnerability context [
]. Adaptation practices can be
anticipatory or reactive, and they are overt responses to perceived threats. Mitigation refers to the
reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions driving climate change by reducing GHG sources and
increasing their sinks .
Most studies ﬁnd that farmers are more likely to adopt adaptation practices behavior than
mitigation practices, because many farmers are still skeptical of anthropogenic causes of climate change
and do not believe that they are causing climate change or that the changes they would make to reduce
GHG emissions will have any positive eﬀect on their farm [
]. Climate adaptation practices often
more easily ﬁt into existing farm management practices because they are changes that can be made
locally and immediately, so the eﬀects can be seen in the short term; whereas mitigation practices
such as reducing greenhouse gases may tend to focus aﬀect-creating changes on larger spatial and
This study contributes to understanding dairy producers’ perceptions and actions to address
climate change by analyzing dairy stakeholder views in Wisconsin (WI) and New York (NY) about
extreme weather and climate change impacts, their management responses, and their underlying
rationales for action. The remainder of the paper will elucidate the results, followed by a discussion and
a brief conclusion. The climate change risk perceptions of dairy farmers and advisors who participated
in the focus groups herein are similar to perceptions from other kinds of farmers in the Midwest and
the Northeast insofar as vulnerability and risk are key factors underlying farmers’ willingness to adopt
adaptation and mitigation practices [
]. This expands upon a conceptual and empirical link
established between climate change beliefs, risk perceptions, and adaptive action among Midwestern
]. Our study examines how climate change risk perceptions, and to some extent beliefs,
relate to dairy management practices to better understand the outlook for dairy in the changing climate.
1.2. Impacts of Climate Change on US Dairy
Wisconsin and New York are the number two and three dairy-producing states in the US,
respectively, generating slightly over half of the United States’ milk production by weight in 2017 [
Both states have similar temperate climates: warm, humid summers, and cold, snowy winters.
season usually comes with ample precipitation for crop and forage growth. Climate
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 3 of 24
patterns in Wisconsin and New York have changed over the past 60 years, including a 1.4–3
in winter temperatures, earlier last-frost dates in the spring, later ﬁrst-frost dates in the fall, less snow
and more rain in the winter, and increased frequency of intense precipitation [
] (Table 1). These
trends are already aﬀecting the agricultural sector and dairy production systems and are expected to
continue given the projections for climate change [28–30].
Recent historical trends and mid-century projections for the Wisconsin (WI) and New York
x Historical Data 1950–2006 for WI1 1970–2008 for NY2 Climate Change Projections 2050 (WI)1 2055 (NY)2
•Increased 1.1–2.5 ◦F statewide in WI and 2.32◦F in NY,
with the greatest warming in the winter
Growing season has increased 12 days on average (WI)
•Last frost comes earlier, and ﬁrst frost comes later
•Likely to be 4–9 ◦F warmer overall in WI and
3.0–5.5 ◦F warmer overall in NY
•Growing season projected to increase by 4 weeks
•Heat waves are very likely to become more
frequent, intense, and longer in duration
•Increased an average of 10% statewide in WI with
greatest increases in winter and autumn. No signiﬁcant
diﬀerences in NY
•Intense precipitation has increased in both frequency
•Either too much or too little water overall in WI,
with extreme events in spring and fall
•More rain than snow in winter
•Thermal heat index (temp and humidity)
expected to increase in summer
Note: 1 ; 2 . Trends do not include data for New York City.
Changes in the rainfall patterns could have serious, detrimental impacts on dairy systems.
Increased precipitation in the spring can delay planting and harvesting, cause soil erosion and loss of
fertility, increase soil compaction from heavy machinery, and reduce yields. Increased drought can
aﬀect crop yields, create erosion risk, and cause feed shortages.
Animal comfort and health may also be aﬀected. Increased temperature and humidity can
stress cows and reduce reproduction rates and milk yields due to decreased food intake [
is less likely to be dramatically impacted in the northeastern and midwestern states
than it is in western states (where a growing proportion of the country’s milk production is occurring
and where it is expected to increase) [
]. Dairy production systems in the Northeast and Midwest have
multiple adaptation strategies available to adjust to climate change, such as changing crop varieties,
adjusting planting dates, or improving cooling capacity of dairy barns [
]. Thus, proactive adaptation
has the potential to provide these farmers with a competitive advantage over other areas of the country.
These new climate change pressures are developing during a time of change in the dairy industry.
Farm sizes and milk yields have increased signiﬁcantly in the recent past, while the total number of farm
operations and milk prices have declined. For example, Wisconsin experienced a 50 percent decrease
in the number of milk cow herds from 2004–2019 [
], with a two percent increase in the number of
], yet milk production rose about 28.7 percent from 2006–2016 [
]. According to the USDA’s
Census of Agriculture, between 2007 and 2017, the number of dairy farms decreased by
Wisconsin, and in 2018 alone, Wisconsin lost 638 dairy farms [
]. That is a
in the number of registered dairy herds—the biggest drop since records started in 2004.
is likely inﬂuenced by retirements and consolidation within the industry [
]. In New York State,
farms, facing ﬁnancial hardship or run by aging owners, are closing at a rate of over
100 per year
. According to the USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of dairy farms decreased
by about 31 percent from 2007–2017, but the number of milk cows decreased by less than 1 percent
in that same time period [
], and the total milk production increased by 23 percent [
]. In fact,
milk production has risen steadily in recent years. Consolidation in the dairy industry is resulting
in larger farms with more cows, and cows are becoming more productive. Nationally, there was a
increase in milk produced per cow from 2009–2018 [
]. However, these larger farms along
with the more highly productive cows may be more vulnerable to extreme weather and climate change.
For example, the larger, more productive cows are more vulnerable to chronic heat stress due to their
high metabolic rate [
]. Furthermore, on these large farms, typically corn, soybeans, and silage
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 4 of 24
are grown on the ﬁelds, and formulaic rations are brought into the barn to the cows,
of climate change such as drought and increased extreme rainfall on these feed crops are critically
important to the modern dairy systems in both New York and Wisconsin. Additionally, with prices
depressed, farmers who are looking to sell are having a hard time ﬁnding buyers. Some farmers
have increased their revenue by producing organic milk, which they can sell at $43 per 100 pounds,
or hundredweight [
]. This higher organic milk price is sometimes three times the going price for
conventional milk, which has dropped below $15 per hundredweight from its peak of over $25 in
]. It should be noted that milk prices are calculated under federal guidelines and have been
decreasing through a combination of strong milk production (supply) and weak demand in both global
and domestic markets. The changes in demand in international markets is often related to global trade
politics, and the domestic demand has been decreasing because Americans turning to alternatives
such as soy and almond drinks [
]. Both the climate and the dairy industry appear to be changing,
and their interaction may multiply the risks posed by the market trends.
2. Materials and Methods
This study assesses dairy farmers’ perspectives of climate change through seven farmer and
advisor focus groups (see Table 2) conducted in NY and WI, two of the leading dairy-producing states
in the United States. The strategy for the focus groups focused on expert opinions of producers and
their advisors working in the dairy industry, following established methods [
]. Focus groups were
open to any dairy producer or advisor in the speciﬁc county or region of interest (see Table 2below).
The farmers were generally those who bred, raised, and milked cows and also grew much of their own
feed on the acreage they owned. The advisors included agronomists and crop consultants—private
agents—who advise farmers about nutrient and manure management, what kinds of crops to plant that
year, how much of each type to plant and recommend when to plant. Other advisors were Extension
agents who work at the county level and interact with farmers on a regular basis but are University
employees. In addition, the focus groups contained both male and female advisors and farmers.
Table 2. Focus groups conducted in New York and Wisconsin in 2016 and 2017.
Focus Group Location Date Target Participants Number of Participants
St. Lawrence County,
Canton, NY CCE Oﬃce, Canton, NY 28 June 2016 Dairy Producers 5 farmers
Auburn, NY * CCE Oﬃce, Auburn, NY 14 August 2017 Dairy
2 dairy crop and livestock advisors;
1 dairy/livestock farmer;
1 ﬁeld crops/livestock farmer;
2 livestock farmers;
Morrisville, NY CCE Oﬃce, Morrisville, NY 1 January 2017 Dairy Producers
6 dairy farmers;
1 livestock farmer
NYS Grange Oﬃce,
Cortland, NY 30 August 2017 Dairy Advisors 9 Advisors
Conference, Madison, WI 11 January 2017 Dairy Advisors 8 crop and livestock advisors
PDPW Conference, Madison,
WI 15 March 2017 Dairy producers 3 Wisconsin dairy farmers
River Falls/St. Croix
PDPW board meeting, River
Falls, WI 23 June 2017 Dairy
9 farmers (PDPW board members);
1 PDPW staﬀmember
* Data included from this focus group is limited because it predominately featured livestock producers with two
dairy advisors present; dairy relevant information was retained for this analysis.
Recruitment of focus group participants for each session was conducted by emailing existing
lists of farmers, using a google form RSVP, placing meeting notices in agricultural newspapers,
with Extension specialists and industry leaders who have existing relationships with
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 5 of 24
producers and advisors. In NY, the researchers oﬀered an incentive for participation in the focus
groups of a raﬄe for a $50 Tractor Supply Gift Card selected by a raﬄe of all farmer/advisor names at
the end of the group session. In WI, participants were oﬀered $25 gas cards as an incentive.
A team of researchers conducted three focus groups in each state using semi-structured focus
group interview guides. In total, there were 40 participants. Table 2provides an overview of the focus
group participants. The focus group interview guide (see Appendix A) was developed by the authors
of this study and reviewed by a panel of researchers with technical expertise in dairy production and
qualitative research methods.
The focus groups, conducted between June 2016 and November 2017, lasted approximately 60–75
minutes each and were audio recorded and transcribed for analysis. An a priori coding framework of key
themes from the literature on farmer views and actions related to climate change impacts [
was developed to guide the coding process (see Appendix B). Although the framework provided an
initial structure for analysis, we allowed for codes and themes to emerge inductively, updating the
coding framework accordingly. Analysis was performed using Dedoose software an online application
for analyzing qualitative and mixed methods research data.
an axial coding procedure
(to identify relationships and connections among the codes) and to examine key concepts and themes
that emerged from the participants in each group [
]. To represent the themes conveyed by farmers
and advisors, particularly compelling direct quotations were selected for analysis .
To perform the analysis, there was an intercoder agreement, in which two coders coded and
analyzed each focus group transcript separately without seeing the other’s coding until the coding
was ﬁnished. After coding was complete, the two coders inspected similarities and diﬀerences to
discern themes and to ensure consistency in interpretation [
]. Because of the large number of
emergent codes produced by both coders, and because of the large total number of codes, an inter-coder
(inter-rater) reliability test was not suitable to measure the intercoder reliability. The statistics would
have indicated divergence where there actually was none because diﬀerent emergent codes were
assigned diﬀerent names but had consistent thematic meaning. Furthermore, Dedoose does not have
a built-in inter-rater reliability calculator. Therefore, in lieu of an inter-coder reliability test, the two
coders visually inspected each focus group transcript with both coders’ completed codes present and
visually inspected for thematic divergences. Next, they had thorough discussions via Zoom and phone
with notes taken to document the process. Through this inter-coder dialogue, the coders agreed that
the themes were consistent in meaning despite diﬀering names for emergent codes. This inter-coder
agreement helped validate the analysis [
]. The ﬁnal codes from the two coders did not result in
substantially diﬀerent codes (in terms of meaning), and any diﬀerences were easily reconciled for the
ﬁnal thematic analysis.
Given the small sample size of qualitative focus group research studies like this one, the ﬁndings
need to be interpreted with care. As a qualitative study, the intent was not to generalize but to provide
rich description, particulars, and speciﬁcs from the participants [
]. Another potential limitation may
be with potential bias in the farmers that participated in the focus groups. Although the researchers
strived to invite a diverse group of farmers to participate, the farmers that chose to participate were
those who were in close connection and existing relationships with Extension (in New York) or who
were participants in large producer meetings (in WI). Future qualitative studies exploring similar
themes would beneﬁt from expanded sample sizes to diversify and saturate perspectives and ensure
that the voices of demographic sub-categories (race, gender, etc.) are considered .
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
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 6 of 24
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
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
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
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
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,
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 7 of 24
with less snow
, there is less water during snowmelt that goes into the manure storage pit.
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 oﬀthe 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.
Table 3. Management actions discussed by dairy farmer and advisors in NY and WI.
Adaptation Types Examples
3changing planting times
3planting new plant breeds and varieties
3manure handling–draglining and injecting
bigger equipment (e.g., larger hay balers-from square to larger round bales)
3smaller tractors (NY only)
34-wheel drive tractors (NY only)
3precision ag equipment
3more manure hauling equipment
3putting a ‘retainer’ on equipment operators
3climate controlled barns
3robotics in milk parlors
3paddocks for rotational grazing
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
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
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 8 of 24
trucks, we were using dump carts with the big tractors to basically mud it out, and that damage had to be ﬁxed
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
. . .
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
. . .
. . .
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
But on the years you need them
. . .
tiling ground, tile drainage
. . .
[it’s like] money in the bank (
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
You understand though that then there’s that economic connection too because Triticale keeps their
options open. They can take it oﬀagain 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
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:
. . .
(the reasons for adaptations) are linked between the stewardship and the economic
. . .
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).
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 9 of 24
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
. . .
those application rates continue to drop dramatically, and part of it’s from nutrient management, pressure,
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 oﬀalong 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),
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
. . .
. . .
diﬀerent than it’s always
. . .
every day their whole life, their whole career
. . .
they’re used to just being at the whim of the weather
. . .
One NY advisor spoke of the resilience of dairy farmers:
. . .
they’re the greatest
. . .
survivalists out there
. . .
. . .
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
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
. . .
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
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 10 of 24
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
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
. . .
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
. . .
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
. . .
. . .
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
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).
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 11 of 24
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.
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.
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
. . .
straw that comes oﬀthe wheat now becomes a supplement to nutrition like the dry hay was but
. . .
also used for
. . .
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,
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,
, if I have to go across my ﬁeld once, maybe twice, because I no-till plant, and I spray it once,
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:
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 12 of 24
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
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 [
]. One WI Advisor
described farmers as willing to use any source of information necessary to reduce risk, including their
. . .
they’re looking at any source of information they can get a hold of, whether it be Climate Corp,
or wherever else. You know a lot of those guys, they’ve been farming for 20, 30, 40, 50 years,
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
. . .
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.
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 13 of 24
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
. . .
. . .
can watch at your leisure when you have time
. . .
if you need information to know about heat stress
. . .
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,
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,
translators or a bridge to recent research.
Table 4summarizes the emergent themes along with some emblematic quotes from this study.
Table 4. Emergent themes in dairy farmer and advisor focus groups in NY and WI.
Themes Emblematic Quotes
Climate change impacts on the
“It seems like what’s really aﬀecting us is when we get excess rainfall in June .. . ”
Management practices and
“. . . 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 . . . ”
“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 (due to wet ﬁelds)”
Climate change beliefs “I think that we are seeing changes; whether it’s our fault, I’ll leave that up to God . . . ”
Climatic and non-climatic risk
“. . . 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; it becomes a proﬁtability problem because milk prices tank.”
Sources and needs regarding
weather and climate information
“They’re always interested in what their neighbor’s doing.”
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,
a conceptual framework of vulnerability [
] 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.
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 14 of 24
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 [
]. 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 [13,15,16].
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 [
in previous studies [
], 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 [
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
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,
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 15 of 24
experimental resilience practices, while farmers whose proﬁt margins are relatively tight have less
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,
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.
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,
of mitigation mentioned has implications for agricultural resiliency, both now and in the future.
have noted [
], failure to undertake mitigation is problematic, both in achieving national
emissions reductions targets and in preventing future extremes of climate change. In other words,
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 [
] have reported that farmers’ intentions
to adapt to climate change do not often translate to actual adoption in some contexts. Furthermore,
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 [
]. These ﬁnancial concerns again have implications for adaptive capacity:
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.
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 16 of 24
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 [
] 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 [
]. 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 [
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
This study contributes to our understanding of how dairy farmers in NY and WI are perceiving risk
and making changes in response to the increase in extreme weather events and climate change. Framed
in terms of presumed linkages among vulnerability, risk, adaptation, and mitigation, the ﬁndings in
this study indicate that dairy farmers are indeed perceiving vulnerability to, and risks from, climate
change. However, ﬁnancial and economic pressures, perceptions of risk from non-climate-related
sources such as the eﬀects of consolidation in the dairy industry and global trade politics, as well as a
skepticism towards anthropogenic climate change, appear to be limiting the extent to which farmers are
willing to consider adaptation practices and the adoption of mitigative actions. Importantly,
underscores that climate change is a risk multiplier for dairy operations and suggests that dairy farmers
are at risk of increased vulnerability as climate change and its multiplier eﬀects intensify in the future.
Given that the local impacts of climate change seem to motivate farmers’ adaptation behavior
instead of mitigative action [
], researchers and extension professionals may have the greatest impact
through speciﬁc strategies that can help realize the co-beneﬁts of both adaptation and mitigation.
, no-till practices may reduce the impacts of ﬂooding and soil erosion (adaptation) but
can also sequester carbon (mitigation) [
]. Some practices such as cover cropping, reducing tillage,
reducing on-farm energy use, and developing local markets oﬀer multiple beneﬁts and are considered
sound and sustainable practices regardless of how farmers view the idea of climate change .
Research and Extension outreach must identify strategies that not only address the co-beneﬁts
of adaptation and mitigation, but also address other concerns such as proﬁtability and productivity.
These recommendations are also relevant at the policy level. For example, subsidizing conservation
farming practices may be attractive to farmers economically but can also encourage adaptation and
mitigation practices. Likewise, policies that strategically promote the link between farming practices
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 17 of 24
and climate change adaptation and mitigation to the general public may help generate demand for
agricultural goods produced according to climate-smart techniques and thereby help ease farmers’
concerns that negative public perception is a threat to their livelihoods. Adaptive and/or mitigative
action will most likely occur if farmers perceive that their economic needs and other concerns are being
addressed and regulations allow them to adapt without going out of business entirely. Working with
farmers and advisors to develop and communicate strategies that convey multiple beneﬁts from a
particular practice change is essential for any future research and educational endeavor.
The ﬁndings from this study identify important common themes among dairy farmers. Because
risk and vulnerability are structured not only due to biophysical processes, but also socio-political ones,
deeper analysis of demographic characteristics (gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, race, etc.)
would provide better insight into how experiences, barriers, and opportunities vary among diﬀerent
farming operational types and sizes. The ﬁndings from this study provide important groundwork for
future studies to build upon so that dairy farmer and advisor perspectives are both better understood
and taken into consideration as the agricultural sector in the Northeast and the Midwest US continue
to adapt to climate change.
All authors contributed to the conceptualization and design of the work, methodological
approach, analysis and interpretation of data, writing, review, and editing. Furthermore, all authors have approved
the submitted version, and agree to be personally accountable for their own contributions and for ensuring that
questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work, even ones in which the author was not
personally involved, are appropriately investigated, resolved, and documented in the literature. Data acquisition
through focus groups was conducted by D.L., A.C., K.G., C.B., and E.M. Funding acquisition, project management,
and reporting was conducted by C.B. and A.C.
This material is based upon work that is supported by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture,
U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2013-68002-20525. Any opinions, ﬁndings, conclusions,
expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reﬂect the
view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Preliminary work was supported by the USDA National Institute of
Food and Agriculture, Hatch Multistate Research Project (Accession Number 1011252) and a USDA Agricultural
Research Service Cooperative Agreement with Cornell University (58-1902-4-010) for the Cornell Northeast
Climate Hub Risk Assessment and Capacity Building Project.
Special thanks to Michael Hoﬀmann, Jonathan Lambert, Joana Chan, Erin Lane, David
Hollinger, Richard Stedman, Jennie Cramer, Danielle Eiseman, Jake Pero, and Emma Bankier, and Pamela
Wildstein among many other colleagues and Cooperative Extension educators, for research assistance and review
of this paper.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The authors declare no conﬂict of interest.
Semi-Structured Focus Groups with New York Dairy Consultants and Advisors
Focus Group Interview Guide
Moderator Introduction: (0:00) Hello, my name is (introduce self and present team members). Thank you for attending the
Focus Group meeting today. Introduce team.
We are research and extension specialists from Cornell University, and we’re interested in learning more about how dairy farmers
in New York make decisions on their farm related to extreme weather and climate variability. With this in mind, we’d like to talk
to you tonight about climate impacts in this region in this region. Thinking about the farms you work with, what impacts have
you seen from those events and how has that impacted people’s production? How are farming practices changing in response.
Some examples of these changes we are observing in New York include: an increase in extreme heat or cold temperatures;
increases in extreme precipitation (ﬂooding), or lack of precipitation (short term drought); changes in seasons; and changes in
diseases or pests.
Please feel free to speak openly and freely about your experiences, but we would also ask you to be respectful of everyone in the
group. Our goal is also not to debate the science of climate change tonight, but to hear about risks farming operations, and what
management decisions are being considered. Since we have limited time, I will try to keep the conversation on track as much as
possible and make sure that we have a chance to hear from everyone. Before we proceed, I’d like to take a minute to go over the
consent form and demographic form that are front of you that we would like to ask you to review and sign—there are two copies
of the consent form, and you can feel free to sign both and keep one for yourself.
(Review consent form: reiterate that participation is voluntary and that participants may leave at any time).
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 18 of 24
Participant Introduction: Let’s start by going around and having everyone quickly share 3 things about yourself: Your name,
what type of farming you advise, and where your clients’ farms are located.
(0:15, 10 minutes) New York has experienced a number of unusual weather events or changes over the past ten years, such
as extreme rainfall or short-term drought, heat waves, changes in the growing season, and increases in pest and disease
pressure. As a consultant or advisor, have you or your clients experienced any impacts or events similar to these? If so,
what were they?
a. Brieﬂy tell us about a memorable event or impact you recall. How did this aﬀect the farm(s)?
GOAL: Identify farmer concerns around extreme weather and increased climate variability, and how it relates to farm decision making. Should
lead to discussion of potential adaptation measures.
(0:25, 10 minutes) Have the farmers you work with made any changes to their farm operations (such as changes to farming
practice or infrastructure as a result of the events or impacts we just talked about?)
Sometimes farmers make such changes to their operation or practices because it reduces risk, makes economic sense,
or is good for the environment. What are the main motivations for making those changes?
b. Do you feel that your clients are well prepared for similar events in the future? Why or why not?
GOAL: Identify farmer values and changes in practices already made to adapt to climate change, and how this relates to farm decision making.
(0:35, 10 minutes) What do you feel are the most signiﬁcant risks to dairy operations that you work with now, and over the
next ﬁve years? How do extreme weather and climate concerns compare or ﬁt in with these risks?
a. What do you feel are the most signiﬁcant risks to dairy farm operations related to extreme weather and
b. We talked about steps some of you may have already taken to reduce risk in a previous question. What are your
suggestions for how farmers can reduce these risks in the future? What are the main challenges or obstacles to you
making these changes?
GOAL: Understand farmer perceptions of risk and risk prioritization, and willingness to adapt around increased climate variability in the
(0:45, 10 minutes) How well prepared are dairy farmers to handle any future climate risks?
a. Which farms are more prepared and why?
b. How do farmers learn about new research and practices that will help them become more prepared and resilient to
extreme weather and climate change?
GOAL: Learn how farmers view their decisions as reﬂected through the decisions of their peers. Learn about the role of peer networks in
(0:55, 5 minutes) Where do the dairy farmers you work with currently get the information that helps inform their decisions
about extreme weather and climate change?
a. Family or Peers?
b. University researchers, Cooperative Extension, federal agencies, state agencies, farm advocates (i.e. Farm Bureau,
c. Websites? Apps? Newspaper, Radio? For example:
•The Weather Channel
•iPhone or android default weather app
•National weather service
•Local TV weather news
GOAL: Understand farmer information sources related to climate change.
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 19 of 24
(1:00, 5 minutes) Do you or the farmers use any of the following seasonal forecasting sources of information?
•National Climatic Data Center
•Northeast Regional Climate Center
•NOAA Seasonal Outlook
•The Weather Channel
•The Farmer’s Almanac
GOAL: Understand farmer information sources related to climate change.
(1:05, 5 minutes) Do you or the farmers use any online tools for weather/climate-related decision making?
•Network for Environment and Weather Applications (NEWA)
•Northeast Regional Climate Center
•Cornell Climate Smart Farming (climatesmartfarming.org)
•Growing Degree Day Calculators
•The U.S. Drought Monitor
•Climate Hubs Toolshed
•U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit
GOAL: Understand farmer information sources related to climate change.
(1:10, 10 minutes) When looking at the next ﬁve to ten years, what type of information or online decision tools do you or
dairy farmers need to help respond to increasing extreme weather and climate risks on the farm?
GOAL: Understand farmer information and training needs.
(1:20, 10 minutes) Most scientists believe that human activities are causing the rapid changes to the Earth’s climate we are
seeing observing. What role, if any, do you believe agriculture has in reducing the impact on the climate?
•Have any of the farmers you work with made any changes to increase the energy eﬃciency of the farm or use
renewable energy (solar, wind or biogas)?
•Have any of the farmers you work with conducted an energy audit on the farm, or do they plan to conduct one?
Have any of the farmers you work with put in place conservation practices or manure management practices that also
help reduce the farm’s carbon footprint?
GOAL: Open a discussion of climate change and its relationship to agriculture. See how farmers react both to the question, and to each other’s
responses, and by extension how open they are to discussions and questions around climate science.
(1:30, 10 minutes) As we prepare to conclude this session, is there anything that else that you feel is important related to
climate impacts and responses?
(1:40) Thank you very much for coming this evening. Your time is very much appreciated, and your comments have been
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 20 of 24
A Priori Codes and Sub-Codes
•Higher temp/heat stress
•Extreme low temp/freeze risk
•Intensiﬁed biological stressors
Change in seasons
•Personal experience with extreme weather event
•Reason for change:
•Values and priorities
Sustainability 2019,11, 3599 21 of 24
Current Sources of Information
Climate Change Beliefs
•Uncertain about science/not solely human caused
•Do not believe
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2019 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access
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