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Options for dealing with drier weather and climate change.

As a result of climate change, years of drier weather are likely to be more frequent right across southern Australia in the future.  To minimise this impact on your farm business, you need to consider the comparative effects of unreliable weather on the alternative income generating production options for your business.

  1. Grain crops.

Cropping for grain is very vulnerable to reduced rainfall, principally because most of the growing season rainfall is taken up establishing the plant base on which the grain is finally grown.  We simply do not know how much rain we will get at the critical end of the season (in spring) on which the grain itself will be grown.  With our changing weather patterns, even the weather forecasters are not much good at predicting that now.  Furthermore, most of the very considerable cost involved in this type of enterprise is spent in setting up that grain production base; ie once again before we know what our returns might be.

Hence, growing grain is a very high risk, high cost production option, that is particularly vulnerable to poor weather.  While the returns might be attractive, if we have no grain to sell, then it doesn’t matter what the price is. 

  1. Forage crops.

Forage crops are less vulnerable to poor seasons and have very distinct advantages over grain crops in uncertain rainfall environments.  Firstly, there is no requirement to grow a “production base” (which is largely currently waste; see below) as there is with a grain crop, because the minute the forage crop seedling emerges from the ground, it is growing what is going to be harvested.  Secondly in our Australian environment, this also means that more of the harvested production is grown earlier in the growing season, when conditions are cooler, humidity higher and water use efficiencies (ratio of production per unit of water use) at their highest.  Hence for example, this ratio of plant production per unit of water use might be as much as three times higher in June-July-August than in October-November.  Thirdly, the costs of growing a forage crop are generally lower than for a grain crop.  For example, weeds in grain crops reduce grain yield, but those same weeds in a forage crop may in fact add to harvested forage yield; and hence do not need to be sprayed out.  Fourthly, it is possible to grow more usable product with a forage crop.  About 2/3rds of a grain crop is waste chaff and straw, whereas all of a forage crop is usable, and around 3/4 of it is harvestable by machine.  Fifthly, protein is the key driver of animal production, and a legume forage crop can grow up to three times the amount of usable protein per hectare compared to a cereal crop for example.  Sixthly, in poor seasons when the need for income is at its highest, demand for forages is usually higher and prices are consequently stronger.

Hence forage crops are lower cost and lower risk alternatives to grain crops, are more efficient at converting rainfall into harvestable product and are less vulnerable to poor season finishes.

  1. Pastures

While “pastures” and “forages” are basically similar, for the purpose of this discussion, we define a pasture as something that is used in situ by an animal rather than harvested and transported elsewhere for the animal to eat (ie a forage crop).  Hence a forage crop could become a pasture and vice versa, according to what is most suited to the individual need. 

In general terms therefore, pastures have similar advantages to forage crops when compared to grain cropping.  The major differences between pastures and forages centre on the fact that while most forages are sown, many pastures do not have to be; they can be wholly or partly grown from seed in the soil seed bank, and therefore have even lower input costs again.  Because pastures are also used in situ, cost of harvest and transport is effectively zero, and nutrients present in the grazed material are retained within the paddock.  This is especially important with pastures and forages based on legumes (as they generally should be), as a good legume can for example fix N currently worth up to $600/hectare.  (See Nitrogen to find out more)  If this is grazed in situ, then most of this N is recycled into the soil, whereas if it is harvested and taken elsewhere, most of the N is lost to that paddock.

Hence grazed (legume) pastures are the lowest cost and risk broad acre options, and have the major additional benefit in contributing N and therefore very significantly reducing the input costs (and associated risk) of cereal cropping.

  1. A note on drought and “Risk Management”.

Beware.  This term is deceptive and highly abused when used in relation to grain cropping.  It is not possible to “manage” the principal risk associated with grain cropping, because it is not possible to manage rainfall.  While it is possible to partially cover some bets (grain cropping is a gamble) by staggering crop sowing times, using different crop species and varieties, manipulating canopy development, etc., this does not reduce the risk associated with grain cropping, but merely spreads it a little wider.  That is good policy in our uncertain environment but overall risk exposure remains very high.  That is why we recommend consideration of forages and pastures as far more effective risk reduction strategies; to genuinely offset or insure this cropping risk, rather than marginally reduce it.    (See Risk Opportunity for more)

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