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Beef producers advised to change — like the weather

Climatologist David Phillips

David Phillips is senior climatologist with the Meteorological Service of Canada.

Weather guru David Phillips has a word of advice for beef producers.
Expect change . . . so change.
Phillips told about 225 people at the Jan. 20 Tiffin Conference at Lethbridge College that the past 10 years reveal unprecedented changes in the weather.
“I think what has truly changed is the variability we’re faced with. The storm of the century is happening every year,” said Phillips, senior climatologist with the Meteorological Service of Canada.
“What we seem to be getting are extremes. Farmers going into the growing season, you can’t figure out what’s going on . . . it’s a crap shoot.”
Phillips said the past 10 years have been remarkable for extremes.
“Across the southern prairies, the winters have been consistent, but not the growing season. Over the last 10 to 12 years we’ve had two of the warmest growing seasons (in 2003 and 2006) and two of the coldest (in 2004 and 2009). We’ve had three of the wettest, and two of the driest.”
“You’d expect this kind of thing in a generation, maybe, but not back to back. Whatever happened to normal?”
Phillips, from Ontario, arrived at the Lethbridge airport during the brutal Jan. 20 windstorm that was rearranging the snows of recent weeks.
The bad weather kept conference attendance down: only 225 showed up out of an expected 280. Phillips admitted he too was a little intimidated.
“I thought I’d arrived at the South Pole,” Phillips said. “Baggage handlers were so bundled up they could hardly move. We had to walk through two foot drifts from the plane to the terminal.”
“Only a fool — or a meteorologist — would dare forecast the weather in Alberta.”
Phillips said Alberta ranchers and farmers are a resilient breed who in the past have demonstrated their ability to cinch up the saddle and ride out the weather. But he said producers must be forewarned that great change is now upon them, and they need to be prepared.
For, the planet is warming.
“I’m avoiding the question, ‘Why?’ I’m not sure we know why. But the evidence is not refutable — the planet is warming up,” Phillips warned. “If you stuck a thermometer into the prairies you’d see it’s getting warmer. Old-timers on the prairies are telling me it’s not what it used to be. It’s warmer.”
And that means growers and beef producers are going to have to adjust, Phillips said.
“Anticipate a growing season from three to five weeks longer,” Phillips advised, adding that this brings up the issue of water.
In fact he sees water to be the biggest issue growers and producers are going to have to deal with in coming years.
“Yes, we need to cut back on fossil fuels but it’s not going to save the planet,” Phillips said. “Conserve water. The biggest issue of the century will not be oil. It will be water.”
With that in mind, Phillips had a few suggestions.
“I would never say to a grower, make a decision on the seasonal forecast alone. Know your own soil conditions. Know your water situation — the snow, the dugouts. Look at the conditions you’re going into the growing season with. Then look at the forecast.”
All these together will give what Phillips called “the personality of the growing season.”
He also counselled that in view of extremes and the increase in weather-related disasters, people should “build stronger, better infrastructure.”
But in spite of the increasing vagaries of the weather and the climate, Phillips said there’s hope.
“I try to be optimistic. I think it’s wrong to preach doom and gloom. Have hope. Don’t despair. There’s good news. Listen to the experts. Don’t be afraid to do things differently.”
“There are clearly some challenges,” he said. “But the ingenuity and adaptability and innovativeness of people in agriculture . . . they’re coping with it.”
“Farmers and ranchers are the most resilient people and profession in this country.”
Phillips said there’s a new front among today’s farmers and ranchers.
“There are no better weather forecasters than farmers,” he said.
“And these days more and more farmers are monitoring their own weather. They have their own instrumentation, their own humidity, temperature, and rainfall gauges, and soil probes. And they have software they can plug that into. This is sweeping the country.”
Phillips encouraged conference attendees to keep on top of the latest developments in agriculture.
“We need to invest in agronomy, in the science . . . in crop genetics. Don’t just stand still. Get the best information you can. Do things differently. Those who follow the science, follow the education, will come out winners.”

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