THE CLIMATE KELPIE BLOG: New Decile Bar Tool a Winner for Producers

Posted by BCG on 24th June 2022

Brief background 

Jenny and Paul O’Sullivan’s family farm in south Gippsland spreads over three blocks with a total area of 644 hectares (or 1600 acres with around 18% set aside for bush and infrastructure), carrying cattle, sheep and horses. 

Jenny & Paul O’Sullivan

The couple run 2000 ewes which lamb in August each year for the lambs to enjoy the spring grass. Shearing occurs in December and lambs are sold in January/February to Coles. 

Four hundred and fifty cows are run on the property. The cattle are fully pasture fed, with some hay when needed. Cows are sold either as store cattle of finished depending on the season and markets.  

A cow and calf in front of one of many shelter belts on the farm

What short term weather and climate information do you currently access? i.e. mobile apps, BoM outlooks etc.  

We use short term forecasts from mobile weather apps such as BOM outlooks and Elders. We need to know what the weather is doing each day to make decisions such as timing of fertiliser, spraying of weeds and haymaking. 

From an animal husbandry point of view, weather impacts if we can mark lambs, use injections for vaccinations of livestock or use pour-on drenches. Best practice is to ensure livestock are dry to allow effectiveness of treatment.  

We also check the short term forecast around shearing time. It’s critical at shearing that we know whether there is rain coming as we need to keep the sheep dry and we only have enough cover for one day. You can’t muck shearers around, especially not now when there is such a shortage, which has worsened due to Covid-19.  

We are also on the lookout for low temperatures during shearing and directly after shearing: off the shears sheep are particularly sensitive to the cold as they have lost their insulation. So we will put them in a warm paddock to help, by this I mean we will move them to a paddock with a good shelterbelt which blocks the wind and changes the ‘feels like’ temperature by taking out the cold winter chill in the air. Low temperatures are important to know not just around shearing but all the time as we don’t want to put our livestock under stress at anytime so we have established many shelterbelts across the farm to help combat the temperatures.  

What long term weather and climate information do you currently access? Are any of these the new Forewarned is Forearmed tools?  

We like to use the Forewarned is Forearmed (FWFA) Decile Bar Tool. These are location-specific bars that indicate the shift in the probabilities compared to usual across the deciles. They are available for rainfall, temperature max and min for the weeks, months and seasons ahead.  

I find them very clear and easy to see, you can find your location on the map and hover your mouse over it and it will take you to the nearest weather station and give you the probabilities you need to help make decisions on farm. 

An example of the Decile Bar Tool on the BoM’s Climate Outlooks page. For Tarwin Lower it is indicating an increased chance of warmer maximum temperatures over July to September.

What type of decisions are you using FWFA tools for and how?  

We use the FWFA decile bar tool for making decisions about seasonal stocking rates and predicting pasture feed growth and availability, so we can match our stocking rate to the carrying capacity. When we are trying to decide how many stock we can run over summer and winter, climate is very important and as we don’t really buy in feed, we prefer to use the pasture we grow on farm. 

The decile bar tool allows us to decide whether or not we are going to sell or hold stock and if it’s to sell, it means that we can make this decision early, ahead of the market.  

As an example: the decile bar tool is currently predicting we are going to be warmer over winter with average rainfall. This means it’s going to be favourable for growing grass. Therefore, when we are working out our stocking rate, we might get away with keeping our current numbers, slowing the rotation and supplementing with farm grown hay and allowing the grass to get longer with deeper roots which is good for the soil. With the warmer soils and extra leaf coverage it will mean the grass will grow faster, setting us up for lambing and calving in the spring when the feed requirement triples. A warmer winter suits us—if we can produce an additional 5 – 10 kilograms of dry matter/ha per day, it means less supplementary feeding is required.  

Managing our grazing pressure is a priority. We want to avoid overgrazing and having bare ground. We want to look after our soil for next year so the decile bar tool is key in helping us make decisions.  

We check the tool regularly.  

What extreme events impact your operation most i.e. high temps, low temps, drought, floods etc.  

We are extremely lucky where we are located, as we have what you could call a benign climate. We do have drought but not the extremes of other parts of the country. We know the climate is changing though and over the past 30 years we have seen more extremes. We really only get a few days of extreme heat—over 40 degrees. We are planning for the variability though which is why we have been steadily planting shelter belts over the past 30 years to protect livestock from the extreme heat and extreme cold. Research has shown that southern cattle as a general rule, don’t deal with heat as well as their northern counterparts with anything over 26 degrees affecting our southern animals’ milk production (Cool Cows Booklet, Dairy Australia). While we aren’t producing milk, we still see the impact the extreme heat has on our animals here which is why we are planning ahead.  

The O’Sullivan’s value shade and shelter no their property

How do you think the new FWFA tools can aid the wider industry? Where do they fit in the decision-making process for grains/dairy/red meat/viticulture?  

I believe the FWFA tools would have even greater benefit for beef producers in northern Australia, who experience weather extremes more often. The tools would forewarn them that they need to move livestock to protected areas/higher ground etc.  

Planning the weather has such an impact on all farmers. We all have to farm with nature, having more certainty on what is coming, what is best for the farm, animals and ourselves. I believe these new tools have much more accuracy now and we can rely on them more. This helps to elevate the enormous stress the weather/climate burdens farmers with. Better tools equal better planning which equates to improved wellbeing for farmers. 

I know many farmers are concerned about the accuracy of forecasting tools but the decile bar tool actually shows you how accurate it is compared to previous years. Giving you more confidence to use it than perhaps you would have in the past.  

I’m excited about the new seasonal outlook model that incorporates research from the Forewarned is Forearmed project. I think for famers across Australia the ability to see the extremes of very hot, cold or wet and dry with a good idea of accuracy will help with decision making. 

I’d encourage all farmers, in all industries to give these new tools a go. We live in one of the most variable climates in the world. Tools such as the decile bar can help us make better decisions for our business, our soil, livestock and our mental health.  

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