Wildfires might take away your milk and cheese

Researchers at the University of Idaho investigate the effects of all this smoke.

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Herd of cows in a hazy field under a sky turned orange from wildfire
Photo: Anadolu Agency (Getty Images)

Wildfires are having a major effect our agriculture system, just like they’re having a major effect on everything else, and it’s looking more and more like we’ll have to accept some of this fallout as the new normal. Maybe we’ll eventually develop a taste for wildfire-tinged wines with notes of ashtray, or restaurants will start instituting BYOGasmask policies for their outdoor dining areas. But having to acclimate to a world without butter? That’s the sort of dystopian nightmare that might just make our leaders get serious about saving the world.

High Country News reports that University of Idaho researchers have been studying the effects of smoke exposure on cattle health. In a project led by lactation physiologist Amy Skibiel, five years of data on cow disease and deaths were collected from two farms in Idaho and Washington state, which were then analyzed alongside archived weather and air-quality data.

Additionally, the team monitored the health of 25 cows from the on-campus dairy farm for three months, doing daily weight and temperature checks, recording milk production stats, and analyzing blood samples; in a stroke of what you might call luck, a “major weeklong smoke event” occurred during this three-month period, which is pretty much as good as things can get for any scientist studying the catastrophic effects of wildfires.

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The study is ongoing, but preliminary results aren’t great. Have wildfires caused a higher incidence of disease? You bet. Have they increased the risk of calf mortality? Of course they have. Are the wildfires causing an epidemic of udder infections? Abso-freaking-lutely.

The researchers also noticed a significant decrease in the cows’ milk production, which is something that’s bound to happen when their udders are on the fritz. The average American dairy cow squirts out about 65 pounds of milk per day; for the wildfire-affected cows, the daily average was 3 pounds, or just over one-third of a gallon.

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Right now you may be trying to quell your fear of a cheese-free future by telling yourself that wildfires are a West Coast problem, and that there are plenty of cows across America that could pull up the slack. Nope. Turns out that Western dairy farms are responsible for 40% of our nation’s milk supply, with California being the largest milk producing state, and Idaho being the third-largest.

Oh, and remember that whole heat dome thing that wreaked havoc on the West Coast’s agricultural system? Extreme heat messes with milk production, too. Hope you guys like oat milk, because it might be picking up the slack for a while.