Of Climate Change, Cows, and California Dreamin’

The California Milk Advisory Board has got to love this. The Board is the organization behind the “California cows are happy cows” TV ads, which say California milk and cheese are better because the Golden State livestock enjoys such balmy weather — way better than, say, frigid, snowy Wisconsin, where cheese is so much a part of the local identity that it’s the state hat (it could have been worse, considering Wisconsin’s love affair with bratwurst).

Now scientists at the University of Washington say that Californians have it right, or at least partly so. According to a new study presented at a conference on climate change at the University of Washington, climate can have a big effect on milk production, and it turns out that Northern California has a nearly ideal mix of temperature and humidity to make cows as productive as they can be. The cows might not be happy (there’s no scientific evidence that pumping out milk in high volume makes for a blissful life), but the people behind the commercials undoubtedly are. 

The worst place for productive cows isn’t Wisconsin, though, because it’s not the cold that makes milk production drop off: it’s hot and/or humid weather. You might not mind being a cow in Florida, for example, or other parts of the Southeast, but you don’t want to be a dairy farmer. (You also don't want to do it in large parts of California; the northern part of the state is just fine, but the vast majority California's cows live elsewhere). 

As the century progresses, moreover, and climate change makes pretty much every part of the country warmer, the problem will get worse: the scientists project a 6 percent drop in per-cow milk production overall by 2080.

It might not just be cows, either. The Washington researchers are now turning to other barnyard animals — pigs are due for evaluation next — to see what effect climate change might have on them. In Wisconsin, they’re undoubtedly waiting to see how hotter weather might mess with the bratwurst supply.