Drought experience shapes flexible approach to climate

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Peter Holding says about half his cropping yield is determined by rainfall. He uses forecasts and production modelling to budget for the year.

Thirty or 40 years ago, Peter Holding says, south-east NSW used to be a high-rainfall, high-cost, high-input area for farming. All that has changed. “A good slap over the knuckles with eight years of drought has made us realise that water is really the limiting factor here, not other inputs,” he says.

Peter and his family run a mixed cropping and Merino enterprise at Harden, about 30 kilometres north-east of Cootamundra in NSW. The crops are primarily wheat, canola and legumes.

For the region, the 600-hectare farm is small to average and the farming mix is typical. “Most people in our region crop about 30 to 60 per cent of their farms and run livestock. There are a few bigger farms, but everybody is pretty much into cropping of one sort or another,” Peter says.

“There’s no irrigation here – we rely on rainfall. We have a bore, good dams and access to town water supply if worst comes to worst.”

Peter says 2002 to 2010 was pretty much one unbroken drought, with no harvest at all in 2005 and 2006.

Peter has become convinced that the region’s climate is changing: “What we’ve seen is in line with CSIRO predictions – hotter summers and drier springs with 10 to 15 per cent less rainfall.”

He now considers the past six months of wet weather as abnormal.

For Peter, climate change is real and serious, and he regards as irrelevant whether it is the result of natural climate variability or human-induced climate change.

What is important, he says, is the need to start changing our practices now because it takes time to take effect. “It’s taken, for example, 20 years to refine our management techniques and practices such as direct drilling. We need to look further ahead, and my view is that it’s better to make a decision than to sit on the fence.”

Peter’s management approach is based around three principles: being low cost, flexible and integrated. “These are the principles that helped us get through the drought. By keeping our costs down, we didn’t run up as much debt.

“Similarly, as we get into greater climate risks in the future, farmers need to outlay less money. So those principles become even more important. Even though they’re general principles, they help us ‘climate-proof’ our farm.”

One of the measures is to cut inputs by working out exactly how much nutrient the soil needs. “Our soil tests show our nitrogen and phosphorus levels are still rising in our soil, and we use stubble to put nitrogen back into the soil.

“However, if we grow a tonne of wheat, we have to replace three kilograms of phosphorus and 14kg of nitrogen per tonne. In the past couple of years we’ve grown 3t/ha of wheat so we put about 40kg of monoammonium phosphate (MAP) into the ground. That has lowered our costs a lot.”

Direct drilling has cut about 80 per cent of the time the Holdings previously spent on the tractor – and less tractor time means lower costs.

“As for being flexible, we try to integrate our sheep and our cropping enterprises,” Peter says. “That means we grow a lot of grazing cereals, wheat and canola. And, because half our wheat is grazing wheat, if I need to I can take the sheep off the pastures and put them on that wheat.

“A lot of people are getting rid of their stock, but I think you still need to be flexible. Part of protecting ourselves against climate change is developing at least one enterprise that is less exposed to climate risk. And when we have good years for cropping, that saves us money, because we use our extra grain to feed the lambs.”

Peter says they are also adapting lamb feeding to accommodate climate changes. “We’re expecting wetter winters and hotter summers. You can’t feed outdoors when it’s too wet or over 35°C, so I’m building an indoor feedlot.”

Peter also uses rotations to manage climate risk at Harden. “We’ve moved our sowing times back a bit, rotating a cereal, canola and a legume, which also helps to control disease.”

Peter’s experience of thinking his way through a decade-long drought has made it clear to him that there is no one answer to managing climate variability. “We’ve tried a lot of things. Some have worked and some have failed.”

He feels the most important changes have been direct drilling with super seeder knife points, using press wheels and retaining stubble. “We started those changes after the 1982 drought, which was 18 months long. Country everywhere had been overgrazed – that was when the dust storms happened in Melbourne – and I knew we had to get ground cover back on the land,” Peter says.

“It took 10 years of experimenting to move to knife points. After that, we worked out how to smash up stubble so we could sow through it and retain moisture.”

Peter is very conscious of being in a time of necessary change, noting that if he and others in his region had continued with the practices of 1982, few would still be farming today.

For him, one of the innovative changes that has strengthened the enterprise’s resilience has been time-controlled grazing (or cell grazing), which involves grazing paddocks with big mobs for short periods followed by long rest periods.

Other experiments have not worked out. He still has problems with seed placement.

“The way forward is to keep trying new practices, keep your eyes open, look at all the research and have a go. We can’t sit back and wait for the answer to be found … but we can help speed up people’s search for information on how to manage climate change in their area.

“If I’m looking for climate information, I go to the Climate Kelpie website (www.climatekelpie.com.au). It explains terms and leads you to more information. Then you can make up your own mind.

“I also use a lot of weather-forecasting tools. The Bureau of Meteorology is pretty accurate with four-day forecasts now. We look at the radar when we’re harvesting – it tells us to within half an hour if it’s going to rain here. I also look at the Indian Ocean dipole outlook on the BoM site, which is important because most of our good winter and spring rain comes across from Broome.

“There are a lot of tools that are available now that we didn’t have 20 years ago. When you add them all together they make a lot of difference to our farming decisions. They’re a big help.”

Peter Holding is a partcipant in the Climate champions program.

GRDC Project Code ECO00003

Region South, North