Several years of drought have forced many of Oklahoma's ranchers to sell off cattle to stay in business.
Now, a group of animal researchers and climate scientists is looking at ways to make the state's cattle industry more resistant during periods of drought.
Oklahoma State University received a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this year to help beef producers adapt to dry conditions, The Oklahoman reported.
Researchers there are working with the Oklahoma Mesonet weather network to look at how much water cattle consume and develop tools to help ranchers see how climate conditions are affecting their cattle.
Megan Rolf, an OSU animal scientist, said the purpose of the grant is two-fold.
Researchers are looking at the amount of feed and water certain breeds of cattle consume, with the long-term goal of developing cattle that are more adaptable to certain climate conditions, including drought.
The group is also working to expand the Mesonet's cattle comfort index, a tool that shows ranchers how climate conditions are affecting their herds, she said.
The amount of feed and water cattle consume can vary widely depending on the breed, Rolf said. Brahman and other cattle that were bred for tropical climates tend to do well on less water, she said. But those breeds haven't gained favor among ranchers in the United States.
"We don't really use those breeds very much here in the U.S., for a variety of reasons," Rolf said.
Eventually, researchers hope to develop cattle that consume less water, while keeping the meat quality and other characteristics that have made breeds like Angus and Hereford popular in the United States, Rolf said.
Albert Sutherland, the OSU Mesonet agricultural coordinator, said the group also hopes to expand the tools the weather network offers to farmers.
The network's cattle comfort index shows ranchers how temperatures are affecting their herds. The group plans to expand the index to include other factors like relative humidity and wind speed, he said. Those tools are expected to go online in late 2016, he said.
The group also plans to expand the cattle comfort index to cover the entire United States, Sutherland said. As it exists now, the index covers only Oklahoma. That expansion could take place next year, he said.
Climate scientists say adaptability will be key for farmers and ranchers as drought becomes more common due to climate change. In a national climate assessment released earlier this year, scientists warned new agriculture and livestock practices would be needed to cope with drier, hotter conditions in the Great Plains.
Cattle represent the largest agricultural commodity in Oklahoma, with cash receipts totaling nearly $3 billion per year, according to the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. But the industry has felt the impact of drought for the past four years. Cattle ponds in western Oklahoma have dried up, and ranchers have been forced to reduce their herds to stay in business.
Charlie Swanson, a rancher in the southwestern Oklahoma town of Roosevelt, said the drought has left him in a difficult position. During normal conditions, most ranchers cull their herds a bit each year, he said. But Swanson said he's had to cull his herd more severely over the past three years than he ever has in his three decades of ranching. Most ranchers in the area are doing the same, Swanson said.
Southwestern Oklahoma has had some rain over the past few weeks, and more is expected this weekend. That rain has helped replenish the grass, Swanson said, but it hasn't been enough to turn things around completely.
"We're still in drought," he said. "We're not out of it by any means."