Climate Adaptation Science Centers

Drought Impacts to Livestock in the U.S. Caribbean

Learn about the impacts of drought on livestock in the U.S. Caribbean below.

Authors: Eva Holupchinski, Nora Álvarez-Berríos, William Gould, and Josh Fain (USDA Caribbean Climate Hub, USFS)

Click here to view the 2-page fact sheet with graphics, or read below for an extended version of the fact sheet.


The production of dairy and beef is important for food security and the economies of the U.S. Caribbean. The dairy industry is the leading agricultural sector in Puerto Rico, contributing about 22% of the total agricultural income (National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2014a). Region-wide, beef and dairy production generate over 25,000 jobs and occupy more than 50,000 acres (Ortíz-Colón et al., 2018). In the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), cattle production has been declining in recent years due to higher insurance costs and natural disasters, while sheep and goat production has increased (Gould et al., 2015).

Caribbean countries are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to their geography and economic capacity (USDA, 2016). Climate change is driving temperatures higher and we see more frequent, intense drought in the region. This affects livestock by decreasing water and feed availability, increasing susceptibility to worms and ticks, provoking heat stress, and lowering milk production (USDA, 2016).

Graphic showing how drought can impact livestock

Graphic showing how drought can impact livestock in the U.S. Caribbean.

Temporal Impacts

Short-Term Impacts

Drought can negatively affect nutrition sources, milk production, and future yields.

  • Dry pastures lead to lower quality hay and increased fire danger.
  • Decreases in feed availability can lead to overgrazing.
  • Heat stress can decrease milk production in dairy cattle and lower quality in beef.
  • Premature deaths lead to lower future yields by limiting reproductive capacity of the herd.

Long-Term Impacts

Increasing heat and drought can lead to long-term challenges.

  • Decreased water availability can lead to hay shortages
  • Nutrient poor, drought-tolerant grass species may spread which would decrease range quality.
  • Imported feed and need to re-sow overgrazed pastures.

Recent Impacts in the Islands

In Puerto Rico, livestock and dairy production are most common in the northern municipalities of Hatillo, Yabucoa, Camuy, Arecibo, the eastern municipalities of Naguabo and Humacao, and the western municipalities of San Sebastián, Isabela and Lajas (Gould et al., 2015). In 2015, two of the most heavily drought-impacted crops in Puerto Rico were grass and fodder, both essential for livestock nutrition (Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture, 2017).

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, livestock production is most common on St. Croix. In 2015, drought impacts were most notable in the eastern regions of St. John and St. Thomas, and the entire island of St. Croix where pastures and ponds were desiccated, causing substantial livestock mortality (NRCS, 2016). Intense heat and lack of rain dried up ponds and grasses, forcing producers to collect palm fronds and tree branches for fodder, depend on expensive imported feed, and cull herds (Ortíz-Colón et al., 2018).

Economic and Environmental Impacts

The impacts of drought on livestock can have consequences for the local economy. Lack of available feed during periods of drought forces livestock and dairy producers to purchase expensive concentrate feed, resulting in higher-priced meat and dairy products. Higher pricing for local producers makes it more difficult for them to compete with imported meat and dairy products.

Water scarcity can also provoke allocation disputes between agricultural and other needs. Drought-stricken rangelands are more prone to wildfire, soil compaction, increased water runoff which decreases groundwater recharge, and increased flooding during storms.

Current Activities and Future Research Directions

  • Technical experts with the USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) - Caribbean Area are working to help producers in Puerto Rico and the USVI mitigate the effects of drought through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). Practices recommended by NRCS include proper irrigation management for efficient water use and higher yields, rotational grazing for pasture maintenance, and the establishment of water sources for livestock such as ponds, wells, and springs. Heat stress can also be limited by adding shade to farms and selecting varieties of drought and heat-resistant pasture, forage, and livestock species such as star grass and the “bald” Puerto Rican cow (Slick-haired Holstein) (Caribbean Climate Hub, 2016). The Cooperative Extension Service of the University of the Virgin Islands and the University of Puerto Rico deliver science-based education on dairy and livestock production.
  • In 2015, the USDA Farm Service Agency’s Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) provided $913,445 in direct assistance to Puerto Rican livestock producers, based on eligibility through the U.S. Drought Monitor. Although the USVI was not part of the U.S. Drought Monitor at the time, they were granted special LFP assistance totaling $15,926 in 2015 and $13,102 in 2016. On June 4, 2019, the USVI was added to the U.S. Drought Monitor and is now eligible for automatic LFP assistance during times of drought.
  • Research is needed to identify strategies that optimize livestock productivity while using less resources. During periods of drought, increased efficiency in feeding and nutrition strategies can bolster dairy and beef production while generating less carbon dioxide and methane.


Caribbean Climate Hub. 2016. Cattle & Dairy Farming in the Tropics | ADAPTA Climate Change Adaptation Demonstration Project. Access here.

Gould, W.A., Fain S.J., Pares I.K., McGinley K., Perry A., and Steele R.F. 2015. Caribbean Regional Climate Sub Hub assessment of climate change vulnerability and adaptation and mitigation strategies: United States Department of Agriculture, pp. 67. Access here.

Natural Resource Conservation Service. NRCS. 2016. Technical Resources. Dealing with Drought in the Caribbean. Access here.

National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2014a. 2012 Census of Agriculture. Washington DC. Access here.

National Agricultural Statistics Service. 2014b. State and county profiles. Access here.

Ortíz-Cólon, G. Fain, SJ., Parés, IK., Curbelo Rodríguez, J., Jiménez-Cabán, E., Pagán-Morales, M., et al.. 2018. Assessing climate vulnerabilities and adaptive strategies for resilient beef and dairy operations in the tropics. Climatic Change (2018) 146:47-58. Access here.

Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture, Statistics Division, 2017. Summary of the Agricultural Losses during the 2015 Drought. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

USDA 2016. Blog article March 17, 2016. ADAPTA - New Climate Adaptation Video Series for Tropical Farmers. William Gould. Access here.

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