Pig cooling pads and weather forecasts for cows are high-tech ways to make meat in a warming world

Jul 30, 2023, 1:54 AM

Dairy farmer Megan McAllister works in the milking parlor on her farm, Monday, July 24, 2023, in Ne...

Dairy farmer Megan McAllister works in the milking parlor on her farm, Monday, July 24, 2023, in New Vienna, Iowa. More intense summer heat resulting from emissions-driven climate change means animal heat stress that can result in billions of dollars in lost revenue for farmers and ranchers if not properly managed. The McAllister family installed new fans above the beds where their cows lie. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

CHICAGO (AP) — More than a third of the heat-trapping gases cooking the planet come from growing and raising food, but millions of cattle, pigs and other animals get to stay cool in the United States and other parts of the developed world.

Many American farmers have apps to forecast animal comfort in the heat. There are computer-controlled “ cooling pads ” for sows. Dairy farmers lower barns’ temperatures with misters, air conditioning and giant fans. Special pedometers, the cow version of a Fitbit, measure vital signs that give clues to animals’ health.

More intense summer heat resulting from emissions-driven climate change means animal heat stress that can result in billions of dollars in lost revenue for farmers and ranchers if not properly managed. But technology often insulates livestock in richer countries — another way global warming exacerbates the gap between wealthy and poor nations.

The U.S. is the world’s largest producer and consumer of beef by volume. People have been drinking less milk in the U.S. but eating more cheese, and government programs still support dairies across the country. About 20% of all global greenhouse gas emissions come from animal-based food products, said Atul Jain, a professor in the department of atmospheric sciences at The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who studies the interactions between climate and human activities like agriculture.

Livestock producers in other parts of the world can’t adopt measures to beat the heat as easily as farmers in the U.S. A 2022 study in the Lancet Planetary Health found that cattle heat stress losses will be far greater in most tropical regions than in temperate regions, due to higher climate impacts and the relatively higher price of measures to adapt to climate change.

Many experts advocate for people in countries like the U.S., where diets are heavy with animal products, to eat less meat and dairy. But big, industrial farms in developed countries are relatively efficient, so to meet global demand with fewer animals, less-developed countries will also need to access the kind of technology that can make them more productive in the face of extreme heat.

“Those innovations bring me a lot of hope,” said Mario Herrero, a professor of food systems and global change at Cornell University who coauthored the Lancet Planetary Health study. “It’s a matter of how do we deploy them.”

This winter, the McAllister family of New Vienna, Iowa, installed new fans above the beds where their cows lie, and they’re happy with the updates. Their cows are already showing signs of improved welfare, like chewing more cud, and there’s more heat ahead this summer.

“We’re going to do what’s best by our cows no matter what is or isn’t going on with climate change,” said Megan McAllister, a sixth-generation dairy farmer. Her husband’s family has been farming for five generations.

September feels like another August these days, McAllister said.

“We want to make the right investments to better our cows, better our businesses that are our dairies, and make sure we’re here for the long haul and that we are thinking about sustainability,” she said.

Making that investment, of course, has a price: more fans for cooling means higher energy bills. That’s something Dr. Michelle Schack, a dairy veterinarian based in Arizona, has noticed as well. She said that the farmers she works with are well-prepared for the blistering heat the state has seen this year, because as research on animal health has improved, they’ve invested in infrastructure.

But it costs a lot.

“Fans and misters, let’s not forget, are hugely expensive, not only to install but the amount of electricity they take is insane,” Schack said.

That could be partly addressed with cheaper solar power integrated into agricultural projects. But regardless, “it’s going to be a challenge, a financial challenge” for more farms to adopt heat mitigation strategies, said Gerald Nelson, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a coauthor on the Lancet Planetary Health study.

Nelson described how different, heat-tolerant animal species or even something as simple as shade structures and extra water supplies can make a big difference when adapting to heat.

Information can help too. A team of USDA and university scientists recently launched a new app called HotHog that uses local weather data to help farmers anticipate conditions that might be uncomfortable for their pigs. And Chip Redmond, a meteorologist at Kansas State University, helped develop a seven-day animal comfort forecast tool for beef farmers that takes into account temperature as well as factors like humidity and wind.

As part of his work with Kansas State, Redmond gives presentations to producers and the general public, and he said that climate change has come up in conversations.

Both he and Jackie Boerman, an associate professor in the department of animal sciences at Purdue University, said that they recognize that farmers have to deal with the effects of climate change every day.

“We want to cool cows, but we also have to recognize that we want to also be environmentally sustainable,” Boerman said. Those two ideas are, she said, “sometimes a little bit at odds with each other.”


This story was first published on July 30, 2023. It was updated on July 31, 2023 to correct that more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from the food sector, not from farm animals.


Follow Melina Walling on Twitter @MelinaWalling.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

National News

Associated Press

Amazon is investing up to $4 billion in AI startup Anthropic in growing tech battle

Amazon is investing up to $4 billion in Anthropic and taking a minority stake in the artificial intelligence startup, the two companies said Monday. The investment underscores how Big Tech companies are pouring money into AI as they race to capitalize on the opportunities that the latest generation of the technology is set to fuel. […]

33 minutes ago

FILE - A passenger disembarks from Amtrak's Sunset Limited at its final stop in New Orleans, Nov. 2...

Associated Press

Biden administration announces $1.4 billion to improve rail safety and boost capacity in 35 states

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration announced Monday that it has awarded more than $1.4 billion to projects that improve railway safety and boost capacity, with much of the money coming from the 2021 infrastructure law. “These projects will make American rail safer, more reliable, and more resilient, delivering tangible benefits to dozens of communities […]

2 hours ago

FILE - Sweat covers the face of Juan Carlos Biseno after dancing to music from his headphones as af...

Associated Press

After summer’s extreme weather, more Americans see climate change as a culprit, AP-NORC poll shows

Kathleen Maxwell has lived in Phoenix for more than 20 years, but this summer was the first time she felt fear, as daily high temperatures soared to 110 degrees or hotter and kept it up for a record-shattering 31 consecutive days. “It’s always been really hot here, but nothing like this past summer,” said Maxwell, […]

4 hours ago

Hudson, 7, left, Callahan, 13, middle, and Keegan Pruente, 10, right, stand outside their school on...

Associated Press

More schools are adopting 4-day weeks. For parents, the challenge is day 5

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (AP) — It’s a Monday in September, but with schools closed, the three children in the Pruente household have nowhere to be. Callahan, 13, contorts herself into a backbend as 7-year-old Hudson fiddles with a balloon and 10-year-old Keegan plays the piano. Like a growing number of students around the U.S, the Pruente […]

6 hours ago

FILE - Sydney Carney walks through her home, which was destroyed by a wildfire on Aug. 11, 2023, in...

Associated Press

Residents prepare to return to sites of homes demolished in Lahaina wildfire 7 weeks ago

HONOLULU (AP) — From just outside the burn zone in Lahaina, Jes Claydon can see the ruins of the rental home where she lived for 13 years and raised three children. Little remains recognizable beyond the jars of sea glass that stood outside the front door. On Monday, officials are expected to begin lifting restrictions […]

6 hours ago

Associated Press

Kidnapped teen rescued from Southern California motel room after 4 days of being held hostage

SANTA MARIA, Calif. (AP) — Authorities rescued a 17-year-old boy in Southern California after he was kidnapped and held hostage for four days by captors who threatened to harm him if his family did not pay a $500,000 ransom. The teen was rescued Friday after law enforcement tracked him and his three kidnappers to a […]

11 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Swedish Cyberknife...

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month

September is a busy month on the sports calendar and also holds a very special designation: Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.

Ziply Fiber...

Dan Miller

The truth about Gigs, Gs and other internet marketing jargon

If you’re confused by internet technologies and marketing jargon, you’re not alone. Here's how you can make an informed decision.

Education families...

Education that meets the needs of students, families

Washington Virtual Academies (WAVA) is a program of Omak School District that is a full-time online public school for students in grades K-12.

Emergency preparedness...

Emergency planning for the worst-case scenario

What would you do if you woke up in the middle of the night and heard an intruder in your kitchen? West Coast Armory North can help.

Innovative Education...

The Power of an Innovative Education

Parents and students in Washington state have the power to reimagine the K-12 educational experience through Insight School of Washington.

Medicare fraud...

If you’re on Medicare, you can help stop fraud!

Fraud costs Medicare an estimated $60 billion each year and ultimately raises the cost of health care for everyone.

Pig cooling pads and weather forecasts for cows are high-tech ways to make meat in a warming world