Wildfires along the west coast aren’t only affecting the air quality, but they’re also affecting the quality of the grass, and may even be the cause for a major decline in the production of cow’s milk. Without as much milk available, residents living out west may be at risk of a butter shortage in the near future.
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Apart from the fact that wildfires have displaced thousands of Americans primarily living in Oregon and California between 2020 and 2021, exposure to smoke can have a negative impact on human health. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the biggest threat from smoke is from microscopic particles such as fine particulate matter, or PM 2.5, as they penetrate deep into your lungs and cause a host of issues. Experts even say that particle pollution is linked to premature death.
However, very little research has been conducted on the impact wildfires have on the health of livestock. As wildfires are becoming more frequent, the new normal, the more pressing this issue becomes. Recent data show that two dairy farms in Idaho and Washington state both experienced a significant decrease in milk production last year after a major smoke event.
As Pedram Rezamand, a professor who studies animal and veterinary science at the University of Idaho told The Atlantic, dairy cows primarily roam outdoors, meaning they’re exposed to poor air quality more so than humans, who often have the luxury of going inside and breathing filtered air. It begs the question of whether or not such exposure to smoke impacts the health of cattle and their ability to produce milk. Amy Skibiel, who studies lactation physiology at the University of Idaho, has been leading a team of researchers on an investigative project on smoke exposure and cattle health.
They collected five years’ worth of data on cow disease and deaths from the two farms in Idaho and Washington. Then, they took other key measurements into consideration, such as milk production stats over a three-month period (which included a major weeklong smoke event) from 25 cows at one of the farms.
So far, the research has shown that there was a higher incidence of an udder infection known as mastitis as well as mortality in calves when levels of PM 2.5 from wildfire smoke were elevated in the air. Aside from the smoke, hotter temperatures can also be a cause for decreased milk output.
In the event that the price of milk and other dairy products surge near you, check out Milk Alternatives 101: Your Guide To Every Dairy-Free Milk Substitute.