“… in the last decade we’ve definitively answered the question that the world’s climate is changing. What keeps me up and night and I think what keeps most of the country up at night is what are we going to do about it? How are we going to mitigate it?” – CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, ABC’s 7.30, February 4
Perversely, I’m pleased CSIRO chief Larry Marshall is lying in bed worrying about how to mitigate the effects of climate change. I’m only glad he’s not a farmer like me, because I doubt he’d cope.
Standing in the paddocks of my Gippsland dairy farm, I guess I have an advantage over Marshall because it’s here that the rubber of climate change adaptation hits the road.
This is one of the worst seasons on record around here and the only thing that has made it survivable has been good, early planning.
We sold 10% of our cows and planted turnips for summer feed almost two months earlier than usual to eke out moisture deep in the soil. We pushed bloody hard to get an irrigator up and running so we could offer the cows a lush oasis of millet with water from our farm dam.
Most importantly, we were quick to speak with our bank manager and buy hundreds of tonnes of extra hay and silage. It was not a pretty plan. It was a survival plan in the teeth of a failed season and a milk price that is below our break-even point.
We are still a long way from next Spring but the survival plan is getting us through. I can’t imagine how we would have managed without it.
Central to our planning were the CSIRO’s soil moisture maps and Pastures from Space. Combining the two tools, we could see that not only were our pastures notgrowing in the peak of Spring, there was little chance they could. The soil was powder dry all the way down to a couple of metres. That can only be fixed by weeks and weeks of rain.
In other words, we knew we were stuffed early enough to do something about it, thanks to the CSIRO. It’s survivable if we plan early, plan well and it doesn’t happen too regularly.
Still raw with the discomfort of this experience, I was gobsmacked to hear Larry Marshall say the climate change question has been answered; I realised he’d never make a farmer.
The big question for me looms large: how common will this type of season be in the future?
The climate modelling is neither detailed or accurate. All we know is that, since I was a little girl in the 70s, it’s been getting steadily drier around here and the scientists say it will continue to become drier, warmer and increasingly unpredictable. That’s nowhere near enough information to make good decisions.
To be frank, we don’t even have a worthwhile forecast for the next fortnight or the three months ahead. The Bureau of Meteorology’s oft-reported seasonal outlook is so unreliable here, it is literally as credible as tossing a coin.
I guess farmers are used to running blind into the next season and getting through when things don’t pan out well, but a long term climate shift is not something you can manage by buying in extra hay.
If this type of season begins to roll around every five to 10 years rather than every 20 to 50, it’s no longer going to be viable to keep doing what we’re doing. And it takes years to reshape a farm. I need to know whether we should be working towards farming cows, canola or cacti sooner rather than later.
Farmers are innovators by nature. Rather than simply howling to the wind when it’s all too late, I will do something about it. What, for sure, I don’t know. Cuts to the CSIRO’s climate and land and water divisions will make finding the answers – and making milk Australian families can afford – ever more difficult.