Local farmers are making cattle resilient to climate change

Ranchers are partnering with a researcher from Thompson Rivers University to make cows more heat tolerant in the face of climate change.
Joanne Nicklas stands in a field wearing a pink plaid shirt with mountains in the background. She has her hand on the back of a red, brown cow she is trying to make more resilient to heat due to climate change.

Joanne Nicklas stands with one of her cows in a field. She hopes cross-breeding cattle will result in heat tolerance for the animals so they can better cope with climate change. Photo by Liz McDonald.

Joanne Nicklas wants to help the cattle on her small ranch adapt to climate change-induced high-heat events.

Nicklas and her husband, Gord, partnered with a Thompson Rivers University (TRU) researcher, John Church, to cross-breed cattle, allowing the calves to adopt a genetic trait that produces thinner hair and internal changes to better regulate their temperature through sweating. Panting and lower temperatures overnight are predominantly how most cattle regulate their temperature.

Church and Nicklas have crossed Red Angus and Senepol breeds. Church explained that Senepol cattle from St. Croix, an island in the Caribbean Sea, have a natural mutation called the slick gene that helps the animal tolerate high temperatures.

“They have noticeably shorter summer hair coats,” Church said. “Also, they have internal metabolic changes that allow them to withstand higher heat temperatures, and that’s something we’re trying to measure by measuring heat shock proteins.”

The cross-bred cattle can also stay warm during winter, an important consideration when making the animals adaptable in Canada.

Church’s research seeks to fill a gap relating to cattle and climate change because most research centers around feed efficiency, but he said there needs to be more information about thermal tolerance. 

“48 to 50 Celsius is probably the upper limit for what cattle can handle if they’re outside, especially if [high night temperatures] don’t allow it to cool down,” he said. “Our goal was to create an animal that might be better able to tolerate these high-heat events in the future.”

Adapting to a hotter climate

Nicklas has owned a cattle ranch near Whitecroft for a decade, and she’s seen the impact of climate change first-hand – both on her cattle and her community.

Over two years ago, her cattle experienced temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius when she had them outside of Kamloops in a valley. The summer heat dome that year caused human and animal casualties throughout the province, from thousands of poultry dying to a mass marine death in the Pacific Northwest.

“We opened up a building so that they would have shade,” Nicklas said. “We made sure we had sprinklers on 24/7 so that they at least had an option so they weren’t out in that hot sun.”

Calves and cows gather together at a salt lick on the Nicklas family farm as smoke from wildfires throughout B.C. and Alberta permeates the air. Photo by Liz McDonald.

The same summer, Embleton Mountain went up in flames.

“The Embleton fire was quite an eye-opener for us – to see that out of our front window. We’ve started seeing hotter and drier climates”

The drier climate means she’s adapting by starting irrigation in her fields earlier in the year and trying to innovate by partnering with Church. Nicklas also said she’s noticed community members’ awareness of smoke on the horizon has increased after Embleton.

“When people are seeing smoke, they’re starting to look at it right away and ask some questions,” Nicklas said.

Canada’s emissions contributing to climate change

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) press release on its sixth assessment report in 2023 reiterated that greenhouse gas emissions caused by human actions have caused a 1.1 degree increase in global temperatures “above pre-industrial levels.” 

The world is still on a trajectory to surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius because current plans are “insufficient to tackle climate change,” according to the IPCC’s press release.

The United Nations Environment Programme notes that at least a third of all greenhouse gas emissions are from how people “produce, process and package food.” 

Nationally, the Climate Action Tracker, an independent science-based project that tracks countries’ emissions and evaluates whether they are on track to meet their climate commitments, highlights the majority of Canada’s emissions in 2020 – one quarter – come from oil and gas, and transportation represents another quarter. Agriculture is responsible for around eight per cent of Canada’s total emissions. 

Producing heat-tolerant cattle on Nicklas’ small farm is a local example of how farmers can adapt without a more substantial reduction in global and national emissions that other cattle ranchers in Canada could adopt.

However, Nicklas is concerned about whether cattle markets are prepared to purchase animals that look different from traditional Red Angus.

“This year will be more of a big test, and I really hope that there is a market,” Nicklas explained.

Church said the calves at Nicklas’ ranch can be back-crossed, and hopefully, the result is a heat-resistant animal that looks like a Red Angus.

Ultimately, Nicklas believes Senepol and Reg Angus cross-breeds should be considered by the Canadian cattle industry.

“I’m hoping that the word will spread, and people will realize that it may end up saving their cattle.”

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