The Roundup -

Agricultural Adaptation to Climate Change in MT


April 10, 2019 | View PDF

Dr. Bruce Maxwell speaks at the NPARL building in Sidney.

Friday, April 5 was the final Brown Bagger of the season. Dr. Bruce Maxwell from Montana Institute of Ecosystems came and spoke on Agricultural Adaptation to Climate Change in Montana. His talk included a little about the current conditions and CO² levels, the projected conditions and impact on agriculture and technology the Montana Institute of Ecosystems is developing to assist producers to tap the wide array of data now available to help make agricultural decisions.

Dr. Maxwell started off by outlining his talk then dove in to current conditions. He explained he was referencing the 2017 Climate Assessment ( then gave a little history on how it came about. They did not expect too many producers to accept the concept of climate change so they held listening sessions with several groups of producers and what they heard was very different from what they expected. Bruce said, "My favorite quote was from a rancher who said 'I don't believe the weatherman either but I watch his segment every morning.'" Bruce said that pretty much summed up the response they got. They found that from 1895 to 2017 the temperatures in Montana had risen by 0.4o F per decade, the amount of precipitation stayed the same, the growing season has increased by twelve days, and there has been less snow in the mountains. They also discovered that, while the temperatures have risen, the chance for spring frost has remained the same. Something also occurred in 2017 that had only ever been recorded in 1910, a flash drought. A flash drought is believed to occur when frequent rains in the spring are followed by unusually high heat in the summer. Using a slide, Dr. Maxwell showed that the CO² levels in 2017 were twice as high as they had ever been during any recordable interglacial period. Scientists can study the atmospheric content during previous years by studying the content of air captured in ice cores in Antarctica.

From this the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is predicting that by 2040-2060 the summer temperatures in Montana will increase by 7ºF. In Montana, that will mean an even longer growing season but with frosts still happening at the same time each year as before. Anyone taking advantage of the longer growing seasons by changing what crops they grow are at risk of being devastated by a killing frost. Warmer temperatures would mean more of the yearly precipitation would fall as rain. This would increase the occurrences of spring floods and mean less mid-summer snowmelt in the rivers for irrigation. He also mentioned the breeds of cattle raised in Montana do not do well in prolonged heat when the temperature does not drop below a certain point at night. The amount of days above 90º is projected to increase by 35 days a year. Dr Maxwell also said the impact of pests and winter annual weeds had not been studied enough to make a projection on.

Dr. Bruce Maxwell mentioned several times throughout the lecture that, "Uncertainty, in the day to day decision, is the hardest part of climate change for the producer." And "The best thing a producer can do is to look into public and private partnerships, take information into account, and learn for themselves on their own land. Montana Institute of Ecosystems is developing an app to take the information gathered by a farmer's own machinery on their own fields, satellite information, local weather measurements and the climate assessments to decide the best places within a field to place fertilizer for maximum profit. Dr. Maxwell said the technology is already available through many commercial companies but those using them run the risk that the app suggests adding more of the company's products other than what is actually needed. Montana Institute of Ecosystems' app would be unbiased. The app is currently in development and will be made available in the next year.

According to Montana Institute of Ecosystems' website,, Dr. Bruce Maxwell is Professor of Applied Plant Ecology/Agroecology in the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Science at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT.


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