Climate change and variability

The earth's climate is constantly changing. Natural climate variability is a fact of life for Australian farmers. It can mean great differences in rainfall from one season to the next and differences in perceptions of 'normal rainfall' between generations.

Consistent changes in climate have been observed over recent decades such as warmer temperatures in both summer and winter, and some rainfall patterns - like the autumn break in southern Australia - seem to be less predictable and more extreme.

Climate change will potentially impact specific agricultural industries in Australia and there are large regional differences in vulnerability.

Some of the more broad-ranging threats from climate change and variability include:

  • an increase in extreme weather events
  • declining pasture quality and growth
  • reduced stream flow and quality of water supply across southern Australia
  • crop yields may be vulnerable to reduced rainfall
  • Increased risk of heat-related stress and disease in stock and crops
  • migration of some pests to southern areas
  • widening distribution and abundance of some exotic weeds.

Agriculture will also be affected by greenhouse gas mitigation policies as governments respond to the threat of climate change. MLA is coordinating a national collaborative research program to develop practical options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing productivity so that individual producers and the industry can meet the challenges of new climate change policies. 

There are three simple steps to managing the impact of climate, which will help reduce the greenhouse gas emissions footprint of your property and can also have positive benefits on productivity and risk management.

Step 1: Monitor regularly

There are five things that you should be monitored, and projected forward:

  • soil moisture

The MLA Rainfall to pasture growth outlook tool presents precipitation and indices of soil moisture and pasture growth for the past nine months and a three month outlook that can be used in enterprise planning.

  • pasture growth

Consider your pasture composition and whether there are other species that may be better suited to your climate and seasons. The EverGraze website has more information on pastures and finding 'the right plant in the right place for the right purpose'

  • feed demand

Use the MLA Feed demand calculator to work out the pattern of feed supply and demand over 12 months.

It is also important to understand the energy requirements of different classes of animals to ensure good condition of your herd or flock. Monitoring animals will provide background information when allocating feed and calculating demand.
  • feed reserves like grain and hay
  • medium and long-term climate outlook
There are a number of websites that have forecasting models and tools for monitoring short, and long-term, weather outlooks including the Bureau of Meteorology, Australian CliMate and Climate Kelpie.

Step 2: Set triggers for action and develop flexible strategies to respond

The triggers that are set will be unique to each farm business and should be based on the level of risk you are prepared to take, flock or herd structure and the environment in which the enterprise operates.

An example of a trigger could be when average pasture cover falls below a certain level, or an ideal amount of feed for the coming season, which based on forecasts, is unlikely to be met.

It is also important to set strategies ahead of “crunch time” as it is easier to take action under stress if you’ve already got a plan in place.

One of the most effective strategies is to make many small adjustments rather than waiting and being forced to make large more radical or costly decisions. Examples of strategies that can be implemented are:
  • supplementary feeding early to maintain condition (especially pregnant ewes or cows). Maintaining animal condition is important for maintaining productivity and avoiding an increase in GHG emissions intensity associated with increased animal maintenance. It is often more efficient to maintain condition using supplementary feed than it is to put weight back on, or increase condition later. 
  • Selling stock rather than finishing to avoid having insufficient feed and damaging pastures or impacting the performance of your breeding herd or flock.
  • adjusting stocking rate, by having groups of animals prioritised to offload quickly. For example, you might run older ewes or cows in a separate mob if these are the first ones you are likely to offload from the breeding herd.
  • trading more aggressively/actively or agisting stock – this will increase the flexibility of your system to respond quickly to changing conditions.
  • weaning early to prioritise feed more appropriately
  • establishing containment areas (eg. drought lots). 
When setting strategies it is important to consider:
  • which animals are core stock to retain, and which could be sold
  • the cost of production of different rations and feed sources
  • carrying capacity of the property and how quickly it responds to seasonal conditions
  • critical dates for the business such as lambing and calving dates
  • the genetic composition of the flock or herd.
Planning ahead and having flexible strategies makes it easy to make decisions quickly if seasonal conditions deteriorate rapidly, or don't turn out as expected. A number of calculators are available to model different strategies and how they might alter greenhouse gas emissions, and productivity, of your property such as the Australian Farm Institute's FarmGas calculator.

Step 3: Put the plan into action, and be decisive

The final step is to carry out the plan and make decisions early if trigger points are met. 

Benchmarking studies have shown that producers who consistently perform well - in good and bad years – tend to have a significantly higher profit from livestock trading.  They monitor the business and make decisions early. They also run efficient operations with high reproductive efficiency and high feed conversion efficiency from effective pasture utilisation. 

It is important to remember that even if you take no action – you are actually making a decision. Likewise, if action is delayed, you are also making a decision which will have ongoing implications for feed supply and budget.

Here is a video on managing climate variability. 

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