Case study - Looking at the future to help farmers today

​Case study – Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Australia’s Farming Future: Climate Change Research Program (CCRP)

Looking at the future to help farmers today

Twenty five locations across the country from Mt Barker in Western Australia through to Cootamundra in New South Wales, looked at on-farm activities that primary producers in southern Australia can implement as climate patterns change across the country.

The Southern Livestock Adaptation Program (SLA) combined global circulation models and local weather data to simulate the impact on pasture production, livestock production and gross margins in the beef, sheep and dairy industries in the years 2030 and 2050.

The SLA recieved funding through the Australian Government’s Climate Change Research Program (CCRP). The SLA is coordinated by Meat & Livestock Australia and involved CSIRO, the University of Melbourne, state government departments, Dairy Australia and Australian Wool Innovation.

National Coordinator Russell Pattinson said the SLA used computer models to work through future climate scenarios and their impact on current grazing systems across southern Australia.

The program identified that most future climate scenarios predict shorter growing seasons and that some changes to farm management practices may be needed to adjust to it.

“Whether it changed the time of your lambing or calving, altered pasture species, introduced confinement feeding, or concentrated on genetic improvement, this program identified the management strategies that could counter the impacts of shorter growing seasons.”

He said while producers may need to better capture the spring peaks in southern Australian environments, there is no indication from any of the models that changing entire enterprises  (for example changing from sheep to cattle or vice versa) is going to be a fundamentally sensible thing to do in the future.

Mr Pattinson said he hoped that the SLA gave producers added confidence to be positive about the future.

“We worked very closely with producers in this program, using their data and ideas on what adaptations may be beneficial in the future,” Mr Pattinson said.

Importantly, the program has shown that some adaptations that may be beneficial in the future are actually worth pursuing today.

“The best way to deal with the uncertainty of the future is to ensure you are operating as efficiently as possible now.”

“Producers won’t rush out and adopt new strategies immediately, but using the information generated from the models provides a greater ability to deal with what the future throws at them,” said Mr Pattinson.

“The models show a range of possible scenarios including a tendency towards shorter growing seasons in spring, higher temperatures, higher carbon dioxide (CO2) levels and lower rainfall in many areas.

“Although the higher CO2 levels could have a positive effect on pasture growth, generally speaking, decreased production windows will more than likely result in reduced gross margins.

Phil Graham, Technical Specialist, Grazing Systems, with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry (NSW DPI) at Yass worked with sheep and cattle producers in 12 locations across NSW.

”We’re seeing a broad variety of figures when it comes to future climate scenarios. In the majority of locations, both maximum and minimum temperatures seem to be going up according to Mr Graham. But it’s a different story with rainfall,” Mr Graham said.

“The situation is nowhere near as uniform. Although a couple of the models indicate rainfall won’t change that much, some indicate a 10 to 15 per cent decrease in rain.”

But Mr Graham said even in those areas where rainfall isn’t expected to change much, annual pasture production is still likely to drop.

Armed with the climate data, a program called ‘Grassgro’ is then used to determine what producers need to do to help recover from the possible loss of production.

“People may talk about moving from breeding to trading, or changing calving or lambing times. They may make more use of drought lots or sell animals earlier,” Mr Graham said.

“They can use the information to look at what improves their situation and whether they are better off implementing a particular change or not.”

Mr Graham said there is no one-size-fits-all approach and noted that different strategies will have different effects in different areas.

He said current work indicates that in a number of locations, summer feedlots or confinement feeding will become a major tool to handle the longer, drier summers predicted in the future.

“Instead of leaving the stock in the paddocks over summer when the pasture isn’t growing and run the risk of degrading the pasture with soil erosion, summer feedlots allow producers to save pasture from being killed and maintain ground cover,” he said.

“As the pasture growth season becomes shorter, summer feedlots will help maintain a higher stocking rate to use the better winter production that will occur with warmer winters.”

Phil Graham said the SLA helped put future scenarios into terms easily understood by producers.

“When you describe the impacts of hotter and drier seasons in terms of pasture production, stocking rates, turnoff weights and gross margins, it puts producers on the front foot,” Mr Graham said.

“Just saying it’s going to be hotter and drier is like giving them the first two pages of a 100 page book. People want to get to the end of the book before they make up their mind.”

Mr Graham said this was just the start of the process and as the quality of the global circulation models improves they would get a greater feeling about the robustness of the original answers.

“While some will have to do more than others to cope, the more confident a producer is about their management decisions, the more capable they will be to adapt to a changing climate.”

Last reviewed: 4 November 2019
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