The recent drought period of 2019 and 2020 in wide parts of Australia is expected to have as big an impact on livestock productivity across Australia as the peak of the Millennium Drought in 2001/02. Nobody knows the effect of severe drought better than livestock farmers, who are unfortunately often seen as its public face.
When news about the drought makes it into the media, the reports are often accompanied by images of livestock in perilous conditions. Images of convoys of trucks delivering emergency supplies of hay to help livestock farmers and pleas for support are engrained in the public psyche as ‘what drought looks like’.
However, livestock farmers say this is a misrepresentation of how the livestock industry operates, and that they work hard to ensure that animals don't starve.
“For our own farm, we certainly are confident that we know how to prepare for drought, when to decide what to sell and whether we want to commit to feeding our stock,” says Lu Hogan who runs a cattle farm in the New England region of NSW together with her husband, and who combines her life-long experience as a producer with work in research and extension services.
“Where it gets challenging is when drought periods last longer than what we usually expect to happen.”
Long- and short-term opportunities and consequences
The 2019/20 drought has been such a prolonged event which has lasted for well over two years for much of Eastern Australia. Some areas, such as the high plains of the Monaro, which is a traditional livestock production area in southern NSW, are still in drought now.
The last event of such magnitude, the Millennium Drought, affected south-eastern Australia until 2009. In many parts of Australia, however, conditions have eased, and welcome rainfall has turned landscapes back to green.
“Stock prices are currently high, and farmers are paying them to get stock back onto their land,” says Hogan.
Coming out of drought and deciding on restocking strategies can place even higher pressure on the abilities and finances of farmers, who need to weigh investment decisions against future income opportunities.
Preparation for the next drought happens in good years, when fenced areas with water access for livestock and feed troughs for hand-feeding livestock along with drought management plans need to be put in place.
“We need to rethink how to deal with risk and financial implications,” says Hogan. “Farmers need to decide which infrastructure investments they need to make, how much feed and water they need to store when the next dry period starts, and there is work to be done to understand the implications better.”
Decision-making is a complex process for livestock farmers. Each farm has individual circumstances and decision drivers. Succession planning within the family is often a strong motivator to continuously improve a farm alongside more immediate economic imperatives.
Some decisions, such as selling or buying livestock, have immediate economic effects.
Other decisions, such as protection of natural resources and soil reserves which help recovery after drought, will show their value only over longer time frames. Dust storms affected capital cities repeatedly in late 2019, illustrating the importance of preventing soil erosion for many city dwellers. Ground cover to prevent soil erosion, protection of riparian zones to protect waterways and healthy soils supporting productive pastures and crops are long-term goals for many farmers, although short-term financial pressure can make these goals seem elusive.
Strong drought preparation leads to sharper recovery
One important aspect of drought preparedness are the decisions taken outside of drought periods. Strategic storage of feed and forage harvested or bought in times of plentiful supply requires infrastructure to protect the stores and then to feed out when needed.
To protect ground cover, containment areas or use of sacrifice paddocks is recommended, and this too requires infrastructure investment and planning. Some farmers in the New England have made these investments in the last drought and are using their new infrastructure now also in ‘good’ years to diversify their operation by finishing lambs for the market instead of selling them at a younger age onto feedlot operators.
Business innovation opportunities can present themselves in various ways. For some cropping enterprises, lack of rainfall prevented crops from reaching the quality required for commercial crops. However, harvesting failed crops early for sale as livestock forage meant at least some return on investment could be recouped.
For livestock farmers, the biggest decisions tend to centre on when to sell, and which stock classes to target. Some farmers will sell off older animals while others will use the opportunity to review productivity and how to improve the genetic potential of their herd or flock.
For most farmers who produce livestock for the lamb and beef market, limited time and resources usually don’t allow collection of records on individual animals and this makes genetic improvements more difficult. In recent times, new technologies such as automated record collection supported by electronic identification systems, or genomic breeding indices, have been developed which help collect large, informative data sets without much labour input. In the future, these technologies may also help in delivering decision support for farmers.
Supporting decision making
Common to every farm operation is the need to make decisions regularly, timely, and with confidence, says Lu Hogan.
“The best decision is the one taken based on the available information at the time,” she says.
To do this well, decisions need to be taken regularly and often, says Hogan, to develop confidence and to learn how to evaluate information. With current forecasting progress, decision support systems increasingly integrate seasonal climate forecast models to predict future scenarios.
Improvements in forecasting tools mean that enterprise-level forecasts are getting within reach, and this presents a powerful opportunity to improve decision support for livestock farmers.
CSIRO scientists have a well-established track record working with industry to support producers.
“Complex problems require a co-innovation process,” says CSIRO rangelands researcher Ian Watson. “We need to engage with farmers, consultants and other stakeholders to take the new, improved tools and models we are beginning to see in research and develop those with the end-user into solutions which will be taken up by the industry.”
To be meaningful and relevant for individual farmers, decision support systems require input of farm-based information. This can be a challenge for an industry where keeping inputs low is an important driver for successful business operations.
At the CSIRO, livestock scientists and data scientists are working together in the Animal Health and Resilience group to find new ways to record difficult-to-measure and complex traits.
New approaches to record traits present an opportunity to help producers to interface livestock productivity data with decision support systems. This may help overcome current barriers to adoption of existing decision support systems.
Together with industry partners, CSIRO researchers are hoping to find out more about how producers make their decisions, which information they find most helpful in the process and which requirements they see for improved decision making.
Insights gained from farmers who successfully managed recent drought events can be used as a basis for developing new tools that will help other farmers make better stocking decisions in the future. The desired outcome is a livestock industry that is resilient, and productive, in good times and bad. In turn these benefits will also help the communities built around livestock farming to avoid the boom and bust cycle triggered by drought, and help protect their natural resources for current and future generations.