Survive the weather cycles

To survive the cycles of the Australian climate, every agribusiness needs a plan to manage its risks, and the best plans include proactive measures and actions to cope with our country’s highly variable climate.

These actions might range from installing infrastructure for water/feed storage or stocking resources during times of abundance, to destocking or changing crop types when things get tough. Whichever way it goes, the key to risk management is to plan over the medium- to long-term, not just the current or coming year—and that means preparing different action plans to survive all potential climate changes.

It’s not possible to predict the weather too far into the future, but there are a variety of observation and forecasting tools available online to help you create useful agricultural risk management plans, as well as early warning systems to tell you when to take action.

“We have a range of tools that can support decision making on the farm, particularly during shifts in our dominant influences such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO),” says Agata Imielska, Senior Climatologist from the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM). “These tools can assist in reducing the risk or exposure to these events by triggering a broad range of actions.”

An understanding of the climate cycles, such as ENSO, that influence our continent will go a long way to help you make the best plans to manage climate risk. The key phases of El Niño and La Niña both last for about 6–12 months and typically have the biggest impact in Australia’s winter and spring—important times, agriculturally.

“To manage the risk that El Niño and La Niña present, it is important to monitor the status of ENSO and, furthermore, to be aware that no two El Niño or La Niña events, or their impacts upon Australia, are identical,” Imielska says. “The current El Niño is the strongest since 1997–98. It will continue to strengthen with a peak around the end of 2015—this is typical for El Niño.

“The very strong El Niño has had mixed impacts during winter, with some parts of Australia recording good falls. This was driven by record warm sea-surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean, which provided additional moisture to our winter weather systems.

“Currently, the Indian Ocean is moving towards a dry regime likely to exacerbate the El Niño influence. September saw a return of dry conditions, with Australia’s rainfall for the month ranking as the third-driest September on record. Recent warm conditions at the start of October are likely to increase risk for crops in parts of Australia,” she says. “It is too early to accurately determine the likely pattern beyond autumn, as this is the transition phase of ENSO.”

While El Niño is on track to becoming one of the strongest we’ve seen, a strong El Niño does not always mean big impacts. Indeed, the strong El Niño event in 1997–98 had only a modest impact on Australian rainfall, while Australia experienced widespread drought during a weak El Niño in 2006–07.

“This is due to the many other climate influences that can work to either negate or enhance the influences of El Niño or La Niña,” Imielska says.

This serves to highlight the extremely complex nature of climate and weather forecasting. So, to aid in better long-term forecasts, the federal government recently committed to providing $3.3 million to BoM as part of its Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper.

According to Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, this will “give farmers more accurate, more local and more frequent seasonal forecasts—the information they need to better plan for and manage weather risk on the land”.

The White Paper also sets aside up to $250 million for Drought Concessional Loans over 11 years, $29.9 million over four years for farm insurance advice and risk assessment grants, $25.8 million over four years to manage pests and weeds in drought-affected areas, and tax concessions for installing water and fodder storage infrastructure.

Risk management is all about planning for the future and proactively adapting to change. The recent support from the government, and the latest in forecasting tools from BoM, will assist Australians to be well prepared for whatever lies ahead in 2016 and beyond.

 

AUSTRALIA’S CHANGING CLIMATE

  • HEAT is increasing. The annual number of record hot days has doubled since 1950. Heatwaves are hotter, more frequent and occur earlier.
  • RAINFALL is projected to decrease across southern Australia (including the Murray-Darling Basin and WA wheat belt) continuously throughout this century, particularly in winter and spring.
  • DROUGHTS are expected to be more frequent and more extreme, especially in southern Australia. Water availability will decrease.

Source: climatecouncil.org.au October 2015 report ‘Feeding a Hungry Nation’.

Words: Simon Chester

MORE INFO

Forecasts, practical climate tools and products for primary producers to incorporate climate risk information into their business decisions: www.managingclimate.gov.au

Climate risk management: bom.gov au/watl/about-weather-and-climate/risk

Forecasts targeted toward agriculture and natural resources management: bom.gov.au/watl

Various outlooks for the near future, including video wrap-ups:www.bom.gov.au/climate/ahead

Fortnightly updates on ENSO: bom.gov.au/climate/enso

Reproduced from the Summer 2015 edition of Westpac’s Agribusiness publication "Produce"

The articles represent the views of the authors and not necessarily that of the Bank. You should seek independent professional advice before acting on any matters set out in the articles.

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