THE CLIMATE KELPIE BLOG: Do producers get what they need from weather and seasonal climate forecasting tools

Posted by BCG on 1st December 2021

The Managing Climate Variability program, managed by MLA, supported market research to determine producer requirements for weather and seasonal forecasting tools. 

The research was done because there is a lack of understanding amongst weather and climate forecast service providers of producer needs and knowledge gaps regarding weather and seasonal climate forecast information. There is also a lack of understanding amongst producers of how to use weather and seasonal climate forecast information to become more productive and improve environmental stewardship and social outcomes for their business and the community. 

The aspiration is that insights gathered from this work will be used by weather and climate service providers to better meet producer requirements for weather and seasonal climate forecast products. 

MLA’s Program Manager Sustainability and Innovation Doug McNicholl said the research, undertaken by Quantum Market Research, is significant for the Australian agricultural industry: “Climate is the biggest individual driver of production variability in agriculture and accounts for one-third to two-thirds of annual global crop yield variability. Proper interpretation of forecasting information can significantly affect the profitability and risk management of a farming operation. As such, there is substantial industry benefit to be gained from finding out how producers are using forecasting tools and ensuring that the forecasts are expressed in a way that equips producers with the optimal insight to aid on-farm decision making.” 

Figure 1. ABARES report, effect of climate variability on rate-of-return for typical Australian cropping, beef and mixed farms. (ABARES, 2019).

Mr McNicholl said the research was undertaken to prepare the Australian agricultural industry with information to determine the next best areas of investment to improve the interpretation of seasonal climate forecasts (SCFs). 

Quantum Market Research Director Tom Leslie said the research showed that the climate data available is chronically underutilised by farmers: “This is due to three things; number one, while the accuracy and reliability of the data has improved in recent years, a legacy of instances where the data has let farmers down because the forecasted conditions haven’t eventuated has left farmers feeling uncertain about what confidence they should place in the modern forecast. 

“Number two, the research has highlighted the need to support farmers’ translation of forecasted conditions to influence on-farm decision making for their specific growing conditions and risk profile which are individual for every farm. 

“Number three, the research showed that farmers are using banked soil moisture rather than predicted rainfall to make their decisions. All these factors mean farmers aren’t using climate forecasting tools to their full potential  

It is therefore incumbent on farming systems groups and advisors to optimise their use and realise their potential for industry, particularly with climate change” Tom concluded.

MLA has published a final report communicating the research findings. It can be accessed here.  

The report has been reviewed by the Bureau of Meteorology to enable knowledge transfer to inform seasonal forecast product design and refinement. 

Project initiation phase commenced with a visioning workshop with the stakeholder group to map out a clear and comprehensive list of existing hypotheses. Additional visioning sessions were also held with representatives of The Council of Rural RDCs (CRRDC), Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) and the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM). Qualitative fieldwork was a series of one-on-one in-depth interviews with Australian producers. A disciplined approach was taken with recruitment to ensure research outcomes are a reliable reflection of the target audiences. The qualitative findings were used to assist in crafting the quantitative survey questionnaire. Statistical significance testing at 95% confidence was conducted on the quantitative data, between groups or against the total average as appropriate. 

Key findings 

While the majority (82%) of producers surveyed accessed a SCF (Figure 2), only half (59%) used this information to make a decision on-farm (Figure 3). 

Figure 2. Use of 3-month seasonal climate forecast Q.9. How often do you look at the following types of weather forecast? (3-month climate forecast) (Base: All respondents, n=426).
Figure 3. Use of seasonal climate forecasts Q.7. To what extent do you agree… “I use seasonal climate forecasts to make decisions on my farm”? (Base: All respondents, n=426)

“What was found,” Mr McNicholl said “was overall, two thirds (61%) of producers surveyed felts SCFs are too unreliable to pay attention to (Figure 4). This suggests that while producers are clearly in the habit of interacting with the forecasts, there is a gap in confidence. 

“There is an opportunity to help producers maximise the value they get from forecasts. As most (82%) are already engaging with a SCF, the job to be done is not increasing awareness and driving ‘traffic’ but rather ensuring producers get value from the interactions they are having.” 

Figure 4. % Agree SCF are too unreliable Q.7. To what extent do you agree… “Seasonal climate forecasts are too unreliable to pay attention to” (Base: All respondents, n=426) 

Increasing number of sources  

Producers feel they have had increasing access to forecasting information with what feels like a proliferation of weather apps, alerts and websites. These digital sources build on existing sources such as news reports and also intensify industry chatter and conversations with neighbours, suppliers, and peers. Thinking broadly about forecasting sources (both seasonal and short-term), on average producers are looking at 3.6 separate sources across all forecast types; the highest number of sources used by any one producer being 17.  

While looking at weather has become habitual (sometimes productive, sometimes not), some are starting to feel overwhelmed by the information available. Grain producers are more likely than other sectors that they feel overwhelmed by the range of different sources (44% agree they are overwhelmed, compared to 36% with a livestock operation). Research observations suggest that those who feel more at-risk can get in the habit of looking at more information in search of helpful or positive information. 

“I take in as many different information sources as I can – it only takes 5 minutes to check multiple sites, but I’m basing big decisions off it. There’s up to $5k of feed being cut, so it’s very important to get it right. It doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion,” – Dairy Producer, NSW

Whose checking the most sources? 

Highlighting the importance of water, and hence producer focus on rainfall, it is those in low rainfall areas who are most in the habit of not relying on any one forecast. They are significantly more likely to agree they don’t put too much faith in any one forecast (94%, compared with 77% of those in high rainfall areas). Those with irrigated operations are also less likely to agree with this sentiment (71% of those completely irrigated).

Future research 

Producers surveyed offered a number of consistencies when asked what would improve the utility of short-term and SCFs:

“A primary focus on rainfall presentation, including assurance that it is correctly interpreted was a suggested improvement consistently reported through the research,” Mr McNicholl said. “Rainfall likelihood and amount was overwhelmingly reported as the most important aspect of any forecast amongst producers surveyed and its perceived reliability the biggest single factor in determining producers’ propensity to utilise forecasts overall.”

“The inclusion of straight-forward and accessible interpretation of forecast information, read in plain language was the other most consistent suggested improvement reported by those who participated in the research,” said McNicholl.

Mr McNicholl stated that it will be these two key areas where future research is likely to be undertaken.

“MLA is committed to fostering the long-term prosperity of the Australian red meat and livestock industry by investing in research and marketing activities. It is research such as this, delving deeper into producer requirements for weather and seasonal forecasting, working with producers to determine their needs, which will propel this industry and entire agricultural industry forward in the face of the ongoing impacts of climate variability,” Mr McNicholl concluded. 

For more information contact: 

Doug McNicholl 
dmcnicholl@mla.com.au 
0439 275 794 

Tom Leslie 
Quantum Market Research 
0402 040 488 

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