Australian farmers are on the frontlines of climate change, with more frequent and extreme weather events. Floods, fires, heat waves and droughts are becoming par for the course.

Around the country, more and more farmers are seeing the changes and, with more to come, many people are trying to adapt.

Community expectations, public policies, technology, and world markets are changing too, with the pressure on agriculture to reduce its carbon footprint while becoming more competitive.

The tips and strategies here should help you:

  • Get a better handle on the on-farm sources and sinks of carbon emissions
  • Take stock of what you’re already doing and look for opportunities to do better
  • Develop climate-smart agriculture strategies that match your needs, values and goals
  • Find more detailed information and support

understanding climate

Farming has always been a risky business and Australian farmers are pretty good at managing risk in an already difficult climate. But climate change is a whole new ball game, where the past is no longer a good guide to the future. Even a small increase in the average temperature is likely to make a significant impact on production landscapes.

Climate change isn’t affecting everywhere in the same way, however, so it’s best to start with the medium- and long-term climate outlooks for your region. Your state agriculture department, industry body, regional NRM organisation or catchment authority, the CSIRO, and BoM should be able to provide you with a reasonable handle on what’s coming down the pipeline.

 

Resources

There are some terrific resources available to help you to better understand climate change and its drivers. Here are a few we’ve found useful:

Within Australia

whole farm planning

There are a raft of whole-of-farm risk management strategies farmers can consider when attempting to manage variability within and between seasons, as well as long-term climate change. These include:

  • Conducting an honest, forensic analysis of the business—noting your strengths, vulnerabilities, adaptive capacity, and areas for that warrant further attention.
  • Acquiring properties in several locations, spreading the climate risk and ensuring ongoing economies of scale.
  • Matching crop/pasture/livestock to emerging conditions in climate and markets. Early planning will be especially important for those industries with less flexibility, such grapevines and other perennial crops.
  • Diversifying farm income by using carbon farming, renewable energy, and other new income streams, and ensuring access off-farm income.
  • Exploring the role of digital technologies (e.g. crop models, soil water calculators, nutrient monitoring, etc.) to improve efficiency, precision, and flexibility.
  • Retiring and regenerating degraded land, including with native bush and agroforestry.
  • Exploring multi-risk insurance (for an introduction see MGA Insurance Group’s presentation on Multi Peril Crop Insurance and its availability in Australia given at the Coorong District Council Agriculture Innovation Update held in Tintinara in June 2019)
  • Partnering with researchers to develop better adaptation knowledge and planning tools.
  • Building and maintaining strong information-sharing networks, and exploring training opportunities.
  • Consider diversifying geographically to spread your climate risk. (This is a strategy of Piñata Farms who are now located in Tasmania, Queensland and the Northern Territory. Read more here.)

Producers in southern broadacre systems might also consider making alliances with pastoralists and others in northern Australia to increase their options and reduce risk.

It is best to focus on incremental, tactical changes in the short-term but give yourself flexibility to allow for more strategic, transformational adaptation to warming beyond 2 ºC.

Regenerative Agriculture

Many farmers are embracing regenerative agriculture techniques. To find out more check out:
Recent media which discusses regenerative agriculture includes:
Some great resources to get started with include:
Looking to delve even deeper and don’t mind some academic-speak? Here are some recent articles that may be of interest:

Alvin Chandra, Karen E. McNamara & Paul Dargusch (2017): Climate-smart agriculture: perspectives and framings, Climate Policy.

carbon storage

Maintenance of soil organic matter is fundamental to sustainable agriculture. Soils teem with life and we are only just beginning to understand how to work with soil ecology. In a changing, potentially more hostile climate, a good understanding of the relationship between organic matter, soil carbon, climate, soil biology, and management practices is essential.

Australian soils are generally old and highly weathered. Typically, they are poorly structured, show poor fertility, and relatively low in carbon and organic matter. Since European settlement, land clearing and ill-suited management practices have compounded natural salinity, acidity, sodicity, and compaction, undermining productivity and sustainability. While reversing these losses would be a heroic task, even small gains in carbon have been shown to significantly improve soil health.

Regenerating soil carbon and organic matter helps to build resilience, lessen compaction, boost beneficial microbes, release some mineral nutrients, reduce the risk of accumulated toxins, improve water-holding capacity, reduce the risk of waterlogging, and lift productivity.

The money saved in productivity benefits alone can make some regenerative practices well worthwhile. Additionally, some farmers are testing the carbon market, using carbon sequestration as an additional income stream.

While we have a lot to learn about soils and soil carbon storage, research and experience suggests a few important tips and strategies:
  • Just how fast and how much soils acquire more carbon varies widely, even on the same farm. Typically, the big factors limiting soil organic carbon stocks in Australia are moisture and soil texture, with land-use history, nutrient availability, and land-use/management playing lesser but potentially significant roles.
  • Because soil conditions are often highly location specific, management/regenerative practices should be tailored appropriately. The same practice applied in one area (even on one part of the farm) may be unsuitable in another.
  • Even small improvements in soil carbon can yield substantial savings through more resilient production.
  • When practices change, carbon sequestration tends to be quite fast initially, slowing down to a trickle within a few years until it reaches a new equilibrium—a process that may take decades or even centuries. At this point, the soil becomes ‘saturated’ with carbon.
  • Importantly, the sequestration process is at risk of reversal, potentially more so in a changing climate. What takes years or decades to build up can be lost in a single drought and/or if regenerative practices aren’t maintained. This is why the Emissions Reduction Fund offers a discounted carbon credit value for short-term (25-year) contracts—to make up for the greater risk of reversal. Management practices will only be effective in sequestering carbon if is stable over a long period—100 years according to permanency requirements under the ERF’s accounting methods.
  • Animal manure is a valuable source of nutrients and organic material that too often goes to waste. Applied carefully, animal manures can help to build soil carbon and improve the structure of soil, reducing the risk of moisture loss and encouraging a complex microbial ecosystem. But manure can often be a source of emissions, too. Be aware that prolonged, regular applications of manure may raise the salinity level in the soil, so monitor carefully. Organic farmers may be concerned about the potential introduction of trace residues of agvet chemicals in manure from conventional animal production.
  • Be sure to keep an eye on the total soil carbon balance, with a focus on net gain. Carbon inputs at one location, e.g. by resting from grazing or applying manure, may reduce carbon in another, without any overall gain.
  • Shifting from crops to pastures, especially perennial pastures, offers substantial potential to increase soil organic carbon. (The overall, long-term carbon benefit, however, needs to be weighed against emissions from livestock.) The rate of increase following conversion from cropping to permanent pasture is largely dependent on starting soil organic carbon levels. Where soils have a history of optimal pasture management, with good water and nutrient supplies—such as in may dairy regions—they are likely to be at or close to their capacity to store carbon. In such cases, there may be little opportunity sequester more.
  • Retaining crop residue can raise the potential for soil carbon sequestration.
  • Zero tillage and other soil conservation practices help to build soil organic matter and have been shown to slow the rate of soil carbon loss after land clearing.
  • In semi-arid and sub-humid zones, inclusion of pasture in cropping systems and phosphorus fertiliser application has been shown to slow down the rate of carbon loss and raise the potential for sequestration in pastures.
  • Rotational grazing may engender a small carbon sequestration benefit, but this needs more research.
  • Retain remnant native vegetation and use a whole farm plan to identify parts of the property that could be eligible for retirement and revegetation. Native bush regeneration has been shown to sequester substantial amounts of carbon, in the soil as well as the body of the plant. With good landscape design, biodiverse plantings can enhance farm performance by, for example, reducing erosion and sheltering stock.
  • Agroforestry can be combined with grazing as shelterbelts and fodder, as well as a source of timber, bushfoods, essential oils, and carbon credits. For example, Tagasaste—widely used as a fodder crop in the low-rainfall zone—has been shown to sequester substantial amounts of carbon, both above and belowground. Additionally, Tagasaste grows fast, is drought tolerant, offers a valuable source of fodder in dry summers, provides shade and a good windbreak when grown in hedge, and nitrogen to depleted soils. Be sure to avoid weedy species when planning agroforestry.
  • Biochar (activated charcoal) offers the potential to store carbon for very long periods in a stable form. It may also promote additional carbon sequestration by activating microbial activity in the soil and otherwise improve soil health. Not all biochars are suitable for all farming systems, however. Some producers find biochar very valuable as a soil amendment, while the benefits are less clear in other cases. Biochar quality is unregulated, so take care when sourcing, bearing in mind the risk of introducing contaminants. Some biochars are known to absorb agrichemicals, such as herbicides—making them less efficient and concentrating them in the root zone. Biochar production (pyrolysis) can release highly toxic pollutants, introducing a health risk. It doesn’t make much sense to use biochar if the emissions over its life cycle outweigh any improvements to soil carbon. Remember, simply shifting carbon from one place to another doesn’t itself amount to a net carbon gain, unless it helps to sequester additional carbon on farm.

mitigation

Australian farmers can play an important role in mitigating climate change – and the good news is that actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions usually also have productivity benefits on-farm. Planting trees helps increase carbon storage while also providing shelter for stock; more efficient use of inputs such as nitrogen and so on. Here we outline the relevant green house gases to agriculture then look more closely at what can be done on-farm.

But first, what is mitigation? Also referred to as abatement, mitigation refers to any action that keeps greenhouse gas emissions from going into the air and adding to global warming, usually measured in tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, CO2-e or just the shorthand ‘carbon’. It includes stopping emissions at their source—such as reducing fossil-fuel dependence and deforestation—as well as drawing carbon down out of the air and storing (or sequestering) it in trees and soils. For agriculture, there are three key greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide.

What are greenhouse gases?

Carbon dioxide (CO2)

Carbon dioxide is the greenhouse gas driving most of the global warming seen since the Industrial Revolution started in the 18th century. Today, the big, global sources of CO2 are the combustion of coal, oil and gas, as well as deforestation and soil degradation. There are also sinks of carbon, principally vegetation, soils and the world’s oceans, which dissolved CO2 is making more acidic. In 2018, carbon emissions hit an all-time high of just over 37 billion tonnes and CO2 levels are now about 45 per cent higher than they were in pre-industrial times.

In agriculture, CO2 is produced when bushland and other vegetation is cleared, burned and decays. Of course, plants need CO2 to respire and grow, so growing trees, pasture and crops absorb carbon via photosynthesis. Carbon from organic residues (e.g. dead leaves, roots, manure and urine) is also incorporated into soil. Unless sequestered, CO2 lasts for centuries in the air, where it continues to warm our world.

Methane (CH4)

Atmospheric methane stems from a mix of natural and unnatural sources, such as coalmines, gas wells and leaky pipes, burning and rotting vegetation, landfill, and ruminant livestock (burps and dung, including wastewater ponds in dairies and piggeries), and rice paddies. Methane-producing (methanogenic) bacteria in their forestomachs allow cattle, sheep and other ruminants to digest and extract energy from otherwise indigestible plant matter.

The global warming potential of CH4 is approximately 25 times that of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period, and more in a shorter time. Methane, however, lasts for only about a decade in the air, broken down mainly by sunlight and atmospheric chemistry. Importantly, though, while the warming effect of any given emission of methane is temporary, the total warming impacts will continue for as long as the source of methane continues. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, methane concentrations in the atmosphere have risen by around 150 per cent. Some of this additional methane is from fossil fuels, some from deforestation, and some from expanding agriculture—mainly livestock, which now far outnumber wild ruminants.

Nitrous oxide (N20)

Nitrous oxide is a very potent greenhouse gas, with a global warming potential more than 300 times that of carbon dioxide in a given century. Nitrous oxide is also emitted when soils are disturbed, through erosion and leaching into waterways and the air, from the application of nitrogenous fertilisers (e.g. urea), and from livestock urine and dung. Legumes use nitrogen-fixing bacteria to draw nitrogen down out of the air and turn it into compounds vital to other plants.

For farmers, wasted nitrogen is wasted money. Improving nitrogen-use efficiency makes sense financially as well as environmentally. Unfortunately, what is an optimal N input (fertilisers and legumes) for pasture isn’t for livestock, with most of the nitrogen consumed by ruminants excreted in urine and dung—two of the largest sources of nitrous oxide emissions from grazing properties.

What can be done on farm?

There are a number of options open to farmers looking to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions on-farm. Below we profile just a few.

Get a handle on the farm’s carbon balance

A number of tools and guides exist to help producers understand their carbon accounts, i.e. the sinks and sources of carbon emissions. A tool should be fit for purpose and scientifically sound. If you’re just starting out you may want something relatively simple that gives you a rough idea of where you can make changes. Entering the carbon market, however, or making claims to consumers will require more rigorous accounting.

Some tools to get you started:

For more on carbon accounting see our carbon storage page.

Reducing emissions from livestock

Livestock emit methane and, to a lesser extent, nitrous oxide. One way to look at methane, in particular, is as wasted energy—up to 10 per cent—that might be better used to grow healthier animals, producing more meat or milk. Recently, there have been some very promising developments in quest for better productivity and sustainable livestock systems.

For instance, studies of dairy cattle fed red algae—which change the mix of bacteria in the rumen—show very impressive drops in methane emissions. Also under development are vaccines that inhibit methane-producing bacteria.

Meanwhile, a range of low-emissions livestock strategies is available right now. Often, these deliver productivity, animal health, and adaptation benefits. More and more producers are starting to reduce the emissions intensity of their livestock, i.e. less methane per unit of meat or milk. This is an important strategy but only if productivity dividends are not then used to expand the herd and raise emissions overall.

Techniques and strategies to reduce emissions from livestock include:

  • Managing pasture quality (e.g. maturity, legume content, etc.) through grazing strategies, such as rotational grazing, to optimise feed value.
  • Growing a variety of high-quality forage crops, and/or supplement grazing stock’s diet with grain or other energy-rich, low-fibre feed (e.g. during summer and autumn). The better the quality of forage (pasture, hay or grain) the more energy the animal’s rumen bacteria can extract from it and the less methane is produced.
  • Finishing stock in feedlots reduces the time to market, hence reducing emissions intensity.
  • Minimising nutrient excretion to reduce N2O emissions. As far as possible, match the protein-to-energy ratio of livestock feed with animal requirements. Young, growing stock and lactating females have a higher need for protein than dry stock. Feed demand calculators are now available to help.
  • Focusing on animal health, genetics and reproductive efficiency. A healthy animal is not only more valuable, it also tends to have a lower emissions profile:
    • Minimise heat stress in your animals, providing adequate water and shade.
    • Maximise the proportion of young, growing or lactating stock.
    • Optimise fertility through good health and body condition.
    • Minimise the loss of newborns through good husbandry, including adequate shelter.
  • Breeding for a smaller but high-performance herd or flock. Select animals for productivity traits such as growth rate, fecundity, feed-conversion efficiency, and disease resistance. Identify, monitor and cull less productive stock.
  • Supplementing animals’ diet with tannin-rich plants (e.g. legumes), Leucaena, lucerne, vetch, lotus, and native shrubs such as Eremophila, as well as linseed oil and grape marc. All of these are known to significantly reduce emissions.

Keep reading:

Nutrient Management

Australian agricultural systems typically apply more nitrogen than they need, wasting resources and money, and risking contaminating the environment. There are several ways to save nutrients and reduce emissions, with little to no negative impact on productivity:

  • Careful timing and measuring of nitrogen fertiliser inputs to match crop/pasture needs can reduce losses—by as much as 80 per cent in some systems.
  • Nitrification inhibitors can help to moderate the conversion of N fertiliser. Note that not all inhibitors are suitable for all farming systems so it’s wise to monitor performance.
  • In rain-fed farming, farmers can raise nitrogen (and carbon) stores in the soil by cropping less frequently and making more use of legumes and/or pastures. Depending on the farming system, adding legumes can reduce the need for synthetic nitrogen by half to near zero without reducing yield.
  • To reduce N2O emissions from irrigated agriculture, managers should reduce either run-off or nitrogen load in the water, or both.
  • Consider using slow-release N fertilisers based on modified biochar (activated charcoal) where available
  • Avoid soil compaction, pasture plugging, and other activities that cause soils to become poorly aerated and promote nitrous oxide emissions.
  • Careful management of livestock effluent can significantly reduce nitrous oxide emissions. This includes covering stockpiles and managing manure piles to avoid anaerobic conditions. Limiting effluent storage in ponds and covering manure stockpiles has been shown to cut methane emissions by as much as 88 per cent. Consider regularly de-watering storage ponds (every six months or so) and anaerobic ponds (every three years) by irrigating crops and pastures, fine-tuning the timing according to your rainfall. Sorbers (insoluble material used to recover water) can improve crop yield while reducing N2O and ammonia emissions.
  • If using slurries or manure as fertilisers, measure the nitrogen content before application for more efficient use, and avoid applying when the soil is wet. Composting or pelletising animal manures will also significantly reduce emissions.
  • Incorporating animal manure into soil will help to reduce nitrous oxide and methane emissions emissions, as well as improve soil structure, often without reducing productivity. In some but not all cases, the action of livestock hooves can help.
  • Minimising nutrient excretion to reduce nitrous oxide emissions. As far as possible, match the protein-to-energy ratio of livestock feed with animal requirements.
Keep reading:

water management

Australia’s climate is getting drier as well as hotter. General strategies to adapt to more expensive, less reliable water include:

Reducing evaporation loss and run-off
  • Using suspended and floating covers and mono-layer films on the water surface of dams, windbreaks, treated sewage and grey water for irrigation where available, and harvesting run-off from greenhouses and other structures, such as solar panels.
  • Mulching with organic material/plastic, contour sowing, minimum tillage, claying, and growing crops under shelter and in greenhouses (which also allow for more accurate, computerised management of temperature, moisture, nutrient and other conditions).
Improving water storage and irrigation efficiency using smart technologies
  • This may include watering at night, drip irrigation, subsurface drip irrigation, and improved irrigation scheduling based on careful monitoring of soil conditions and crop factors.
Building and maintaining the water-holding capacity and quality of soils
  • Maintaining good minimum cover using cover crops and perennial pastures, and using organic mulches and manures.
  • Help plants make better use of available soil moisture by improving soil structure, e.g. by adding gypsum, using organic mulches and manures, deep-ripping hard pans, and improving drainage to reduce waterlogging (e.g. raised beds, deep drains, etc.).
  • Remove chemical constraints to root growth by targeted application of micronutrients and macronutrients, liming to reduce pH, and draining to reduce sodicity.
  • Choose crop/pasture varieties, species and/or rootstocks better able to explore the soil profile.
Be flexible
  • Change the crop/pasture/livestock mix anticipating changes in the cost and availability of water.
  • Use available climate projections to plan for the need to relocate heat- and/or water-sensitive crops/livestock to cooler, wetter areas.
  • In some areas, in part because of drying winters, frost risk has risen. Use more frost-tolerant varieties/species, manage stubble, and match sowing dates and species to better deal with frost risk.

Keep reading

horticulture + viticulture

Some of the ways in which those in horticulture and viticulture can adapt to the changing climate include:
  • Review regional climate projections before establishing new vineyards/orchards
  • Explore alternative species, varieties and/or rootstocks
  • Modify canopy and floor management practices to conserve soil moisture
  • Manipulate harvest dates, for example by changing pruning
  • Review human resource and other needs to adapt to shorter harvest times
  • Review requirements for chilling
  • Use netting to reduce the risk of sun as well as pest damage
viticulture
Research

Projects underway include:

In practice

livestock

Some of the ways in which livestock producers can adapt to the changing climate include:
  • Select breeds and within breeds for tolerance to changing conditions, including heat, diseases, and parasites
  • Modify the timing of mating and weaning based on seasonal conditions
  • Review the property for access to shade, shelter, and water
  • Adapt grazing and pasture management. For instance, reduce paddock size and/or total grazing pressure to facilitate recovery and fodder production. Match stocking rates to season and long-term carrying capacity
  • Conserve fodder
  • Finish cattle by lot feeding
  • In intensive animal production (e.g. piggeries, dairies, etc.), review the need for sprinklers and air flow
  • Review protocols for movement, handling and haulage
In practice

climate risk beyond the farm gate

It’s worth bearing in mind how others—policymakers, communities, markets, suppliers, insurers, and investors— respond to a changing climate and the shift to a clean economy.

Some of the resources we’ve found useful include:

  • Media interview and presentation from Tim Reeves, Professor in Residence at Dookie Campus, University of Melbourne talking about climate change and global food security at our 2018 Managing Climate Risk in Agriculture event in Beechworth

Minter Ellison’s Special Counsel on Climate Risk Sarah Barker is a regular presenter at our events. We highly recommend checking out some of her media interviews here and here and her presentation at our Beechworth event.

building resilience

Australian farmers and their families are no strangers to adversity and rural communities often have strategies for coping with difficult times. Ironically, farmers’ famous stoicism can sometimes prove a barrier to seeking assistance for mental health and other problems. Climate change is likely to compound the many other stresses and strains already facing rural communities, demanding new coping strategies. Doing climate-smart agriculture well also means looking after yourself and those around you, and working to build resilient, vibrant rural and regional communities.

Fortunately, climate action can prove a powerful remedy for despair. For instance, as more and more renewable energy (e.g. solar and wind) comes online, Australia’s energy system is decentralising, creating new opportunities in rural and regional communities. Jobs are created, directly and indirectly: in project development, construction, and operation. What’s more, projects that are initiated, co-owned and/or shared by local communities can strengthen the social fabric. Renewable energy on farms can add a new, stable income stream, while community enhancement funds inject money into local economies and community projects.

A resilient community is one in which individuals take responsibility for proactively managing the risks they face, including climate risk. Communities may muddle through, and that’s OK. We’re all learning how to live in a new climate. What’s important is a shared sense of purpose, a willingness to learn from experience and diverse perspectives, and ensuring everyone feels understood, needed and wanted. With a little help, most people pull through

drought, fire and other adversities. If you or those close to you show these signs it may be time to seek help:

  • Feeling really down or stressed for a fortnight or more—to the point where it’s interfering with your personal and/or work life.
  • Thoughts about ending your life.
  • Increasing relationship problems, including more/worse arguments.
  • Using large amounts of alcohol and/or other drugs in effort to cope.
  • Dramatic changes in behaviour (e.g. you can’t get out of bed).
  • Feeling unusually irritable or angry—at yourself, others or the world.
  • Feeling powerless to deal with strong feelings and/or physical symptoms.
  • Feeling worthless, numb, empty and unable to enjoy the activities you usually enjoy.

Remember, action is the best antidote for despair and helplessness. You’re not alone. You matter. And there are people who can help.

Research
Frontline support
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