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Management strategies and policies to assist north Australian beef enterprises adapt to climate change

This project aimed to assist the northern beef industry to prepare for climate change by providing a cross-regional analysis of vulnerability to climate change and ways of enhancing adaptive capacity.  It was targeted at peak representatives of the beef industry (both producers and government) who will have to develop and implement climate adaptation strategies and policies (complementing a partner project, Component 1 or B.NBP.0616 that targeted regional-specific, property-level adaptive management options).  The project used a broad systematic framework to evaluate and identify agro-ecological, economic and social factors contributing to vulnerability and the effectiveness of actions that could be taken to address them.

Despite using the best available data and modelling tools, there are still many uncertainties and caveats in this report.  Such uncertainties are likely to persist into the future (even with improved data and analyses) so it is important that adaptation approaches are flexible and robust enough to accommodate this uncertainty.  In this sense, the analyses and the results presented should certainly NOT be used as predictions of the future.  Rather they should be used as indicative of the types of future challenges and opportunities climate change is likely to bring, and as a resource for scenario planning to ensure adequate measures and adaptation options are available to deal with such situations where and when they arise. The agro-ecological assessment found that overall, the downside risk of declining productivity for the northern beef industry is only slightly higher than the upside risk of improving productivity.  Those regions that are currently less productive tended to be more susceptible to the effects of climate change (particularly negative impacts) whereas some of the more productive regions tended to be less sensitive (to either drying or wetting trends).

The results reinforce initiatives to improve grazing land management both because pastures in better condition tended to be less sensitive to negative climate impacts, and because associated improvements in productivity could offset declines under drier climate scenarios.    Sandier soils (with less capacity to store plant-available water) tended to be less sensitive to climate change and more responsive to improving land condition (but modifying soil properties is not a viable management option).  Other sources of local variation in pasture (such as fertility and tree density) had little consistent effect in modifying their sensitivity to climate change or adaptation options.

The economic impacts of projected climate change bear upon many aspects of enterprise management, including heat stress and the need to provide additional water and shade infrastructure, changing distributions of pests, weeds and diseases etc. Whilst these factors are important, the dominant effects on the vulnerability of northern beef enterprises are likely to be manifest through changing levels of carrying capacity and animal productivity combining to effect beef turnover, the scope for productivity growth and capacity to yield ongoing economic profits. Using insights from a recent beef situation analysis and manipulation of regional benchmarks from MLA-DAFF funded project B.NBP.0616, the conclusion is necessarily drawn that the northern beef industry across the main production regions is highly vulnerable to relatively small adverse changes in its market and production context. This includes any adverse effects of projected climate change on either carrying capacity of range pastures or animal productivity, both of which are necessarily inter-related. Adverse terms of trade, limited recent gains in on-farm productivity and low profit margins under current management systems and current climatic conditions give limited margins to absorb climate change induced productivity losses.

While there is necessarily a distribution of enterprise performance around sectoral averages, it is difficult to conclude otherwise than that many enterprises within the northern beef sector have relatively low resilience to adverse climate change trends and limited immediate capacity for adaptation.   The social component of the project set out to understand and assess the vulnerability of pastoralists across Northern Australia to climate variability and change as a basis for climate adaptation planning. We were able to identify the thresholds to change and the barriers that would most likely inhibit change processes. Most importantly, we were able to identify the factors and processes that could minimise vulnerability and enhance the resilience of the industry. Our approach was to interview 240 pastoralists across northern Australia by telephone after providing information to them about the project by mail and radio media.

The key results were:

1. Vulnerability is a function of both climate sensitivity and adaptive capacity. We assessed the climate sensitivity of pastoralists as the levels of;

(i) occupational identity,

(ii) family circumstances,

(iii) place attachment,

(iv) employability,

(v) formal and informal networks,

(vi) business approach,

(vii) business size,

(viii) income diversity,

(ix) environmental awareness, and

(x) local environmental knowledge. We assessed the adaptive capacity of pastoralists as;

(i) approaches to the management of risk and uncertainty,

(ii) level of skills for planning, experimenting, reorganising and learning,

(iii) level of psychological and financial buffers, and

(iv) level of interest in adapting to change.

2. The vulnerability of the sample of pastoralists was high. We identified pastoralists belonging to one of four types of vulnerability. We found that two types representing 85% of pastoralists were highly vulnerable because they had low planning skills, low interest in adapting to the future, managed risk and uncertainty poorly and were not strategic in their business.

3. A threshold to change for one person is not necessarily a threshold for another. Thresholds were very much an individually-set construct. We think that individuals proximity to their thresholds can be understood in terms of their sensitivity. For example, some pastoralists may be close to their thresholds of change if they have high occupational identity and the change event directly threatens their identity as a pastoralist.

4. Barriers to change were also able to be identified on the basis of the sensitivity of pastoralists to change. For example, pastoralists with a lifestyle approach would erect barriers around proposed adaptation strategies that threatened their sense of lifestyle.

​5. Quantitative measures of adaptive capacity were highly correlated with many measures of climate sensitivity. Pastoralists that had higher adaptive capacity had stronger networks, a strategic approach to their business, had high environmental awareness and high local environmental knowledge.


 

The implications of our social research suggest that any investments into the development of adaptive capacity of pastoralists across northern Australia would heighten the success of any climate adaptation planning. We think that assisting pastoralists to develop their networks, strategic interest, environmental awareness and knowledge (through monitoring soil condition for example) is likely to be highly useful. Many of these findings support existing initiatives to improve resilience in the beef industry, adding further motivation for efforts to improve stocking rate management, improve land condition, and manage climate variability (although these will need to be complemented by adaption options for coping with additional, unique new climate challenges).  Results also highlight the benefit of improving strategic planning skills and networking among producers

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This page was last updated on 25/07/2017

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