By Kirra Grimes
SOUTH Gippsland farmers gathered at Ross Batten and Madeline Buckley’s Buffalo beef farm last week at a Landcare field day themed around future climate challenges and opportunities.
After hearing new research and perspectives on the relationship between climate change and pasture production from Melbourne University Professor Richard Eckard, and learning how to take advantage of the Emissions Reduction Fund from Mathew Warnken of Corporate Carbon, the group took a tour of one of Ross’ paddocks to examine the results of the farm’s ongoing Soilkee pasture renovator trial.
The results to date showed that the Soilkee renovator, which aerates soil with minimal pasture disturbance, had improved species, response to rainfall, pasture quality, preferential grazing and dry matter yield in the paddock’s trial plots, and attendees such as Fish Creek’s Ron Smith were excited by the technology’s potential to improve soil biology on their own farms.
Farmers ‘hungry for information’
The field day was well attended, and the Victorian Coordinator of Farmers for Climate Action Corey Watts said the increasing incidence of climate change themed events for farmers, which he calls a “conservative” group, suggests “it’s not just an issue for ‘greenies’ anymore”.
Farmers for Climate Action recently held an event on managing the risks of extreme weather and the shifting climate for farmers at Yarram, with speakers including Dr Luke Shelley from the Bureau of Meteorology, and Corey says they hope to do more around the state.
“What we’re finding is that farmers are hungry for information and they’re hungry for it from reputable sources and there are good people in the dairy industry, in the meat and livestock industries, cropping, horticulture, who’ve been doing a lot of work on this for a while. And getting that information out is really, really important.”
Acknowledging that some people still don’t accept the science of climate change, Corey encourages farmers to look at climate change in terms of risk and risk management.
“We talk about it in terms of managing the unavoidable and avoiding the unmanageable.
“There are direct risks in terms of the health of your livestock, the health of your crops, the health of your soil, and indirect risks to the health of farmers themselves when extreme weather impacts on infrastructure and emergency services.
“Then, there’s all the technology changes, changes in the market, consumer expectations, agribusiness investors, government policy, and you need to be ready for that.
“So that’s what we mean by risk management. It’s being ready, keeping yourself informed, and knowing that you have a voice, and that you as farmers are powerful in this whole debate.”
Looking over the fence
Richard Eckard is a Professor of Livestock Production at Melbourne University and the director of the Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, in the faculty of veterinary and agricultural sciences.
He says farmers in South Gippsland are fortunate that the area is “probably one of the kindest areas in all of Australia in terms of the change in climate”.
“Over the last 20 years, there’s been a very clear declining trend in rainfall but it’s not disastrous,” he says.
“But it’s the rising temperatures that have brought the biggest change in the pattern of pasture growth. We’re seeing more growth in winter, because of the rainfall ending earlier in the season than it used to.
“And there’s a general southward movement of weather systems. For Western Australians, that’s probably not good news because the north is drier, but for here it’s actually not that bad.”
Professor Eckard says farmers in South Gippsland wanting to prepare themselves for future climate change would do well to “look over the fence” to western Victoria.
“You can use an analogy that in the future, the pasture growth pattern here might look more like what we see in western Victoria now, and western Victoria might look more look South Australia and South Australia might look like Western Australia.
“Look at what they’re doing in western Victoria and how they manage the system. They have similar grazing systems there, but they just emphasise the winter growth a bit more than the late summer growth.”
Professor Eckard says climate change “goes both ways” and it’s important for farmers to not only think about how the climate is going to affect them, but how they can affect the climate.
“The main emphasis is that we should think of ourselves more as ‘carbon famers’ because that grass we’re looking at, 43 to 48 per cent of that’s carbon. And what farmers are in the business of doing is capturing carbon out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis, putting it into grass, putting it into animals and sending carbon out into the supply chain for people to eat, and we need to think more about how we can be carbon efficient.”
Flexibility the key to survival
From better herd management to improve the health of the stock and in turn reduce greenhouse gas emissions, to improving soil management, to agroforestry, and harnessing digital technology and renewable energy, Corey and Richard say there are many things farmers can do to cope with the challenges and maximise the opportunities of a changing climate.
Ross Batten agrees farmers must factor in climate change and be prepared to “do things differently” to keep their businesses viable into the future.
Ross has been farming beef at Buffalo for 20 years, on land owned by his wife Madeline Buckley’s family for 120 years.
He started “thinking differently” about climate change around six years ago.
“What changed me was that I went to a farm in southern New South Wales in an area that’s always in drought.
“I drove out from Echuca, drove for 30ks and for 28 of those kilometres there was nothing but bare paddocks, but when I got to the 29th kilometre, I saw dry grass and saltbush and fat animals and I realised, ‘we’ve got to do something differently’. Those people had done something differently. They’d recognised climate change and changed the way that they were farming to maintain healthy pastures and good ground cover. And it was like a lightbulb moment for me.”
On his own farm, Ross says he started noticing the effects of climate change when water started to become an issue.
“Managing our water on our farm’s been something I’ve been really keen on. In the last 20 years, every year we’ve spent a lot of money digging out two or three dams on the farm and we’ve worked out what our peak stocking rate is and tried to allow for three years’ water supply on the farm. Now I’m doing more planning for the long dry periods.
“People might say ‘it’s never dry in south Gippsland! Why would you worry?’ but there’s no doubt about it; our autumns are a lot drier and the break doesn’t seem to be as regular as what it was.”
Apart from drier conditions, Ross says weather extremes associated with climate change have prompted him to try to get more out of his pastures and he says the Soilkee trial is just one example of his experimentation with different approaches.
“I’m doing a heap of different things to make sure that we can be more profitable. And we’ve got to. Because if we just did things the way people had done when my wife’s father was here, we would’ve gone broke 10 years ago.”
The peak stocking rate at Ross and Madeline’s 457-hectare property is 1300, and Ross hopes to increase that to 1800 in the next three years.
“If we can increase our stocking rate and manage them through those extreme events, then we’re going to be more sustainable and more profitable.
“That’s where we’re going but the challenge will be getting there. It’s not easy and you’ve got to do it in a cost-effective manner.”
Ross says the key to survival is flexibility, and that farmers “should be more factual about what they do” rather than anecdotal.
“I don’t subscribe to one particular way of management. I think good farmers nowadays have to be very flexible but have a long-term goal what they’re aiming for. And if you’re not prepared to be flexible, and change, and analyse what you’re doing, then you’re going to go under.”