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Emily King
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Managing climate variability

Posted by Bestprac on Oct 02 2013

AWI's Beyond the Bale September 2013 edition

Young Climate Champion woolgrower James Walker from Queensland has modified his production practices in response to climatic and seasonal variability. James has provided more watering points for his sheep, and harvests grass during times of peak production to capture quality feed while it is available. James is also using dynamic weather forecasting models to help predict rainfall patterns.

Mustering in on Wakefield Station in western Queensland. Semi-arid regions such as this are already at the forefront of managing climate shifts.On 24,000 hectare Wakefield Station, 90 kilometres south of Longreach in western Queensland, Young Climate Champion woolgrower James Walker runs about 12,000 sheep under semi-arid conditions.

“Our sheep numbers fluctuate quite a bit depending on the season,” James says. “Currently, the mobs of sheep we’ve got are about 4000 ewes and 5000 wethers. The ewes are joined in that bigger mob for rotational purposes and then when they’re lambing out we’ll disperse them into smaller mobs.

 “We get about 17–18 inches (about 450 mm) of rainfall a year here, but it varies a lot: I have experienced up to 40 inches and down to five inches. One year we might have an abundance of feed, the next year only limited amounts; we’re managing for that all the time.”

 As an AWI Young Climate Champion woolgrower, James regularly showcases to other woolgrowers the practices and farming systems he uses to manage climate variability.

Livestock watering

Woolgrower James Walker checking water supply pressure in poly pipe.Until recently, Wakefield Station had traditional grazing and watering systems. Livestock had to walk in excess of 5–10 kilometres away from water to eat. But James has now introduced many more watering points, which limit the distance the sheep have to walk to feed to about two kilometres, so the animals are a lot healthier.

Until recently, Wakefield Station had traditional grazing and watering systems. Livestock had to walk in excess of 5–10 kilometres away from water to eat. But James has now introduced many more watering points, which limit the distance the sheep have to walk to feed to about two kilometres, so the animals are a lot healthier.

“At Wakefield, there are permanent surface water dams and they were the only water supply that we had for livestock,” James explained. “Traditionally, at the start of the season all the dams were full, but towards the end of the season the water quality had petered off and the livestock weren’t handling the conditions. To add to low water quality, the livestock were walking in excess of two kilometres from water to feed. In this situation they were metabolising the energy they’d grazed to walk back to water.

“So we improved reticulation and the number of watering points. I drew two kilometre–radius circles on a map of our property and fitted them together. Then through the circle centres, I drew a line, and we got a total of 63 kilometres of poly pipe that we’d need to accommodate that 2 kilometre–spacing.

“So the animals can drink and graze not too far from water, and once they’ve consumed that feed then we can keep rotating them around. So we’ve got a lot more useable acreage. From a central point, the water is reticulated through two loops, which creates more volume and pressure of water for the livestock.


James says the variable rainfall in this semi‚ÄĎarid region creates a boom and bust cycle for his business. The more information he can get on rainfall patterns and potential forecasts, the better he can manage his business and the more money he can make.

As a part of the Climate Champion program James has learnt about a dynamical forecast model, Predictive Ocean Atmosphere Model for Australia (POAMA), developed by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO.

“Last year I noticed, for our region, that POAMA was in a neutral pattern with no strong conviction either way for rainfall. If it became a positive pattern, that would be fine, but I need to make decisions based on what I’m seeing at the moment.

“Because it was neutral, the potential downside was quite significant: if it swings to a downside, there’s a fairly steep slope where you can run out of feed and grass and water very quickly.

 “So I decided that I would sell down most of the cattle in our enterprise. We actually did end up getting the rain, but most of this region and most of north-western Queensland didn’t.

 "Now we’re, fortunately, in a position where we’ve got an abundance of feed but nobody else does. A lot of their cattle had to be sold or agisted because of the lack of grass, the market has been flooded, but we avoided loss in capital within our livestock enterprise.

 “We haven’t made a big move like that before, based on the forecasting, but I had a lot of confidence in the system because it’s dynamical forecasting, not historical modelling. It wasn’t the only thing that I used to form a view, but they’re the sort of indicators I use to make a decision.”

James also uses an app, Australian CliMate, produced by the Federal Government’s Managing Climate Variability R&D program, which provides recent weather data and likely climate probabilities. It is the first app to ‘interrogate’ long-term weather statistics using a set of decision-makers’ questions. A web version is also available.

“The CliMate app helps me access and understand past climate statistics and upcoming seasonal predictions,” James adds.

Hay baling

Baling native Mitchell grass when there is an abundance of feed.James has diversified his business in several ways including haymaking with native grasses, capturing the opportunity of the abundance of grass while it’s there. He has been doing it for four or five years, and it’s now a big part of his business.

“Five years ago we had abundance of feed so we started baling a bit of hay,” he said. “By the end of the first year we had 10,000 baled and sold. Now we’re into our fifth year, we’ve sold about 60,000 bales.”

He advises that it’s important to have the right land type, contractor to do the work and shed storage to do hay.

“We make sure the contractors leave enough grass in the system to keep the plants healthy. We do it in the middle of the wet season, then those plants can regenerate if there’s rain during our wet season. And now [March], since we harvested the hay, it’s almost ready to bale and harvest again due to six inches of rain. This year, though, we’ll just preserve that grass for livestock.

“It’s about managing that abundant feed, to harvest it in good seasons, and to secure a bit of cash and capital for the poorer times and to manage through a drought.”

Leading adaptation

James says for producers in semi-arid regions to run their enterprises successfully, they really have to be on top of managing climate.

“The one factor that varies in our business is rainfall and it’s a very important aspect of our business to be able to manage that. Semi-arid regions are already at the forefront of managing climate shifts because we get a huge variance in rainfall from year to year already: from 40 inches of rain one year to five inches the next.

“Climate change will be an evolution. It’ll not catch people by surprise and, least of all, farmers. Farmers are very resilient and I believe that they’re already adapting to it.

“We’re sticking with Merino sheep. After all, when it’s dry, you’re guaranteed to get wool off your sheep. It’s a reliable source of income.”

More information: If anyone would like more information, they can contact James Walker directly on phone (07) 4658 2141, mobile 0428 583 336, email James or post: “Camden Park” Longreach Qld 4730.

For the full case study, visit the climate kelpie website 
POAMA website



Last changed: Oct 03 2013



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