Dairy Australia’s Cathy Phelps was one of the star presenters at a climate change risk management day run by Farmers for Climate Action with the support of the Gardiner Foundation in Yarram. It stoked plenty of interest from farmers who weren’t able to make it on the day, so I invited Cathy to share some of her insights for Milk Maid Marian.
MMM: An average increase of 2 degrees temperature doesn’t sound like a lot. How would it affect dairy farmers?
CP: The challenge for dairy farmers is not incremental changes in average temperature but increased frequency of climate extremes. Climate change increases the variability of temperature and rain patterns. Extreme events, such as floods, droughts and heat waves and associated risks such as price volatility, pests and diseases become more likely. The timing of when these extreme events occur and their severity will significantly impact how quickly a farming business may recover.
MMM: How will those effects vary in different dairying regions? Are some more vulnerable than others?
CP: The type of impact will vary, some regions may be most impacted by changes in water availability, others by increased frequency of temperature extremes. For example in many areas of Victoria, spring pasture growth is becoming much more variable from year-to-year, generally starting four weeks earlier and also finishing earlier. In the Northern Irrigation Area of Victoria, reduced water availability and summer heat waves is favouring annual winter-active pastures over perennial pastures or deeper rooted species such as Lucerne and tall fescue. Cows that are used to high summer temperatures are less impacted by abnormal heat events than cows in regions where summer temperatures are more moderate.
MMM: What impact will climate change have on the profitability and productivity of Australian dairy farms?
CP: Research conducted by Dairy Australia in partnership with dairy farmers and their service providers found that for dairy regions in south-east Australia the expected impact on productivity is approximately 0.6% per year (but could be as high as 1.2% for businesses that have not adopted strategies to mitigate climate change). This research found the rates of productivity gain required to counteract the impact of climate change on farm profitability would need to be achieved over and above what is considered ‘business as usual’. The impact of this reduction in productivity on farm profit will be dependent on the extent to which dairy producers in other countries are impacted by climate change.
Immediate impacts of changing temperatures on farm profit are already being experienced through increased frequency of heat events. The estimated impact of Victorian November heat wave on farm profit as measured through reduced milk pick up was $3000/farm (see below), not including any carry-over effect well beyond the event.
MMM: How is efficiency and resilience linked?
CP: To beat the cost-price squeeze, businesses often respond by becoming more efficient, optimising returns/unit of input. For dairy businesses being challenged by increased climate volatility this may not be the most sustainable approach as a system running close to optimum will be more vulnerable to shocks such as extreme dry or wet periods. A climate resilient farming system is one that can withstand shocks such as more frequent and extended dry periods, heatwaves or floods.
One strategy to mitigate increased climate volatility and increase resilience is to create buffers in the system, for example increased fodder reserves or greater use of Farm Management Deposits. Buffers reduce reliance on outside inputs. In favourable seasons excess dry matter can be harvested and stored for feeding in less favourable periods. Higher winter growth rates and shorter sharper springs offer an opportunity for additional fodder conservation.
MMM: Does DA anticipate regulation similar to that in NZ?
CP: Currently farm level agriculture activities in Australia are exempt from carbon regulation. In New Zealand agriculture is also exempt however there are plans to bring agriculture into the NZ emissions trading scheme at some stage. It is highly unlikely on farm agricultural activities will be included in any Australian emissions trading scheme in the short to medium term. Pressure on dairy businesses to report and reduce their carbon emissions is coming from customers such as Mars, Unilever, Nestle and McDonalds. These multinationals and many others have made public commitments to reduce the carbon emissions of their supply to chain to meet the COP21 Paris agreement.
MMM: What can farmers do to adapt to climate change?
CP: Australian dairy farmers are already adapting to climate change by:
- securing inputs (water, fodder reserves, land),
- mitigating impacts (increasing shade and shelter – Cool Cows, changing pasture species, installing a feed pad),
- adjusting to suit changed pasture growth conditions (e.g. changing calving times), and;
- investing in irrigation.
Additional strategies include:
- developing business management skills to better understand the risk trade-offs between optimising/intensifying their farming business versus building in redundancies/buffers,
- learning more about the potential value of new precision technologies, data driven decision support tools and different pasture/forage species to mitigate the impacts of climate change for their farm,
- building understanding of the reliability of short term and seasonal forecasting for their locality to enable more informed decision making around tactical decisions such as increasing fodder reserves, use of nitrogen, culling lower performing cows, and;
- exploring climate analogues to identify dairy areas where the current climate is similar to their projected future climate.
New and emerging precision and automated technologies, improved connectivity and bioengineering all offer opportunities for Australian dairy businesses to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Thank you very much, Cathy, and also to Farmers for Climate Action and the Gardiner Foundation for holding the day in Yarram.