THE CLIMATE KELPIE BLOG: Seasonal climate forecasting and its use in farm decision making

Posted by BCG on 28th April 2017

Climate variability plays a significant role in the profitability of broadacre farmers. This was again illustrated by the 2015 and 2016 seasonal conditions where contrasting weather patterns influenced the growing season, production and subsequent ‘bottom line’.

The increased awareness and understanding of climate drivers has assisted the agricultural industry to better allocate resources and plan for variable conditions. Growers are getting further interpretation of climate drivers’ current influence from experts all over Australia.

In 2006, during the millennium drought, a Managing Climate Variability (MCV) project resulted in the inception of ‘The Fast Break’ newsletter in which eleven dynamic, ensemble and statistical climate models are interpreted for a Victorian climate outlook. This newsletter is produced by Agriculture Victoria and has been a popular resource throughout the agricultural community ever since.

From what was initially a grain grower subscriber base, The Fast Break newsletter now has more than 3000 subscribers. An extended base of livestock and horticultural growers have pushed the readership beyond its initial grain producer focus.

This shows that agricultural producers continue to recognise the importance of better understanding the climate drivers and the effect they have on rainfall and temperature in their districts.

In a recent survey, The Fast Break subscribers agreed that the newsletter had improved their knowledge and understanding of seasonal climate variability and improved their ability to make decisions to manage their seasonal risk.

Results also showed that subscribers had increased understanding and use of the Bureau of Meteorology’s three month seasonal outlooks, sea surface temperature maps and the Southern Oscillation Index.

Growers were also asked to explain in what circumstances they use seasonal climate forecasting information in decision making. There were a wide range of answers including; hay/silage planning adjustments, irrigation rates adjusted or water bought, changes in nitrogen/urea application, changes in sowing plans and changes in stock numbers. Advisors are also accessing information to inform their discussions with their clients.

In the recent GRDC fact sheet “Using climate and weather data objectively”, John Ferrier, a grower based 20km north of Birchip explained that he looked at multiple tools in his decision making. This included the BoM seasonal outlookThe Fast Break (Norway) and attends information session by Agriculture Victoria seasonal risk agronomist Dale Grey, while also taking into consideration weather station, soil testing and soil moisture probe data.

Mr Ferrier clarified that “it is best to look at the collective trends of all models and which way they are swinging” to get a better understanding of the season.

While seasonal climate forecasting information can provide insight, other information should also be considered to make a rounded decision.

In 2015, an El Nino climate pattern was prominent and this resulted in the Ferrier family farm beginning harvest earlier than they had ever started before. Mr Ferrier followed seasonal climate forecasting information and reassessed inputs in April due to low rainfall to date, combined with the low rainfall seasonal outlook and switched from canola and lentils to higher cereal and fallow percentages to reduce farm business risk.

Using seasonal outlook information and reviewing projected tonnage, the Ferrier farm decided to reduce nitrogen application to target a 1t/ha crop and minimise herbicide applications, therefore reducing input costs. This enabled the Ferrier’s to mitigate the expected reduction in income and not place any further inputs than needed.

The publication of seasonal climate forecasting information continues to experience increasing circulation and includes publications in many regions of Australia and for many agricultural industries. DAFWAQDAFFarmlink ResearchCotton Info and NSW DPI all now have regular newsletter publications, with Agriculture Victoria also producing a dairy specific newsletter quarterly.

This article was first published in Landcare in Focus in April 2017.