THE CLIMATE KELPIE BLOG: Keeping a watchful eye on the seasons pays off for this farming family

Posted by BCG on 12th February 2020

Susan Carn has made it her business to understand the climate drivers that impact on her family’s sheep grazing business based around their home at Quorn in the Flinders Ranges. So much so, that for a while she was on the speaking circuit helping other farmers to learn more about this complex challenge. 

The family manage about 12,000 hectares around Quorn, the Horseshoe Range, the Willochra Plain and north towards Hawker. They have intentionally sought to spread their business over a broad geographic area to diversify their exposure to seasonal risk. In 2016 they purchased the 570 square kilometre Umberatana Station, 300km north in the Gammon Ranges. While the southern properties are based on winter-dominant rainfall system, Umberatana is more reliant on summer rainfall.

The Carn’s business is mainly merino sheep, but they also lotfeed lambs, raise a few cattle and crop a small area at Quorn – mainly barley and wheat.

Ben and Susan Carn. Photo: John Kruger.

Following the forecasts

Susan studies a selection of forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology and from around the globe to get a better sense of how robust the predictions are for any given year. The Carns factor the strength of the forecast signals into their decision making.

While Susan and her husband, Ben, now leave most of the day-to-day running of the business to their son, also Ben, Susan still follows the forecasts well enough to be willing to call a halt to crop sowing if the odds are against a fair season. 

“I also follow the Korean and Japanese forecasts as they’re more willing to take a punt six-months out,” says Susan. “It’s a pretty marginal area for cropping around here so we can’t afford to stick our neck out. I’m still surprised when the boys down tools, but they seem to be willing – as my husband puts it – Mum said!

 “The Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) has been the big one for us over the last year,” she says.

“And something that the Japanese call the El Niño Modoki, (In Japanese modoki means similar, but different) which is where the clouds tend to form in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This is different from the traditional El Niño where clouds form near South America, but either way it takes rainfall away from Australia.”

“Both the positive IOD and the El Niño Modoki really impacted on our rainfall across all of our properties.”

The location of the sub-tropical ridge has also been a problem this year. Throughout the winter it was sitting further south than usual, which prevented rain bands from coming up from the Southern Ocean.

“There’s also been a delay in the 2019-20 monsoon season, which means we still haven’t had any of the summer rain that we need at Umberatana Station.”

“The Madden-Julian Oscillation (MJO) is also an important driver as it can help drag moisture down through the centre of Australia when it is in the right phase.”

The Carn family have intentionally sought to spread their business over a broad geographic area to diversify their exposure to seasonal risk. Photo: Susan Carn.

Boom or bust

“Our intention has always been to have enough country to enable us to shift stock around depending on the seasons,” says Susan. “This year we have sent some sheep over to the Eyre Peninsula on agistment because there is a pocket on the west coast that has had a good year.”

Susan has built up a list of favourite climate forecast websites, and the family rely on this information to manage livestock numbers. However, over the last few years, she has noticed that the seasons have become less predictable.

“It seems like the seasons are getting more erratic,” Susan said. “It’s either boom or bust.”

When they first purchased Umberatana Station in 2016 it had just received record rainfall. It took a while to get the fences repaired and bring in livestock, but they were rewarded with a good wool clip in 2017. In 2018, the station received only 42 millimetres compared to the average annual rainfall of 220mm and so the Carns began removing their sheep in the autumn of 2018. A handful of cattle remained (80 head), but with only 19.5 mm in 2019 most were shifted south by mid-2019.

Ben Carn at Umberatana Station in the Gammon Ranges. The Carn family purchased the station to enable them to shift livestock between the different climate zones. Photo: Susan Carn.

Managing variability

“We are learning to make the most of the good seasons and to find ways to ride out the bad ones. I like to keep an eye on the climate systems so that we can factor their potential impact into our decision making.”

Four bumper years at Quorn from 2013 to 2016 allowed them to purchase Umberatana Station to further diversify their location, but they’ve also taken steps to reduce their vulnerability to poor seasons at home.

“We’ve put a real focus on infrastructure,” Susan said. “We’ve built new fences and yards, bought feed bins and have installed feeders in all of our paddocks. We’ve also shifted most of our cropping to barley now because it allows us to sow and harvest earlier in the season and we can use it in the feeders.”

“By feeding barley in the paddocks, it means that our sheep are less reliant on what is growing in the paddock and they’re already used to eating grain if we need to bring them into the feedlot. Despite the dry conditions, we have been able to maintain the ground cover in our paddocks while some others in the district have bare ground. That is a real advantage with the constant windstorms we’ve been getting this year (2019).”

More importantly, they’ve been able to maintain their lambing performance because the ewes have maintained condition.

The combination of home-grown grain (when available) and infrastructure also provides an income stream. “Our son is very interested in marketing and is always looking for opportunities to fatten lambs,” says Susan.

The Carns have also purchased a bulldozer and diversified their income by taking on jobs for the local council as well as digging dams or clearing the way for fences for other landowners.

The Carn family opportunity feedlot lambs to diversify their income stream. Photo: Susan Carn.

Future climate

The family’s approach has enabled them to capitalise on the good seasons and ride out the difficult ones. However, Susan believes that it is getting harder to predict the impact of particular climate drivers.

“It seems to me that the warming planet is affecting the way that the climate drivers behave and interact with each other. Whether this has a bearing on it or not, I’ll be keeping my eyes and ears open for any early warning signs.”

“This summer, I’ve been closely monitoring the cyclones off our northern coast. We just need a couple of decent rainfall events, like a pulse of the MJO, at Umberatana Station to set us up for a good season.”

Contact

Susan Carn, 0428 486 438, carnnomi@bigpond.com
Read more about the Carn family business in the 2016 interview with Susan on the Climate Kelpie website.

Susan’s information sources

Understanding climate and weather influences

Daily forecasts

Seasonal forecasts

Extras

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