Developing Resilience

Resilience refers to the ability a farming system has in withstanding unexpected and sometimes severe disturbances in the form of climatic extremes (e.g., prolonged drought), pests and diseases, changes in markets, and input costs. The management team determines this "ability" and the plans and strategies they have in place to reduce their exposure to these disturbances and, if need be, to "bounce back."

The resilience of different agricultural systems will depend on the intensity of production. For example, grazing systems that rely on high stocking rates are more vulnerable in dry seasons. The resilience of agricultural systems can be improved by the following approaches:

• Diversify crop and livestock systems. For example, diversification of crops and planting times reduce the impact of a poor season, especially for areas such as the northern wheat belt of eastern Australia (Ridge and Wylie, 1996a).

• Grow productive, deep-rooted perennial pasture species that can respond to and make efficient use of rainfall throughout the year. This includes maintaining native perennial pasture species, such as Dan-thonia (wallaby grass), which have grazing value and a tolerance of dry weather.

• Match livestock demand and pasture supply closely to reduce the prospect of feed deficits. Aligning peak animal demand (i.e., late pregnancy and lactation) with peak pasture supply will maintain pasture quality while reducing the need for supplementary feeding.

• Conserve and store fodder to overcome periods of feed deficiency. Fodder reserves should be increased as the stocking rate on a property increases; this will reduce the exposure to price changes for supplementary feeding in dry times.

• Use flexible rotational grazing rather than set stocking to make it easier to ration the feed supply and assess the amount of standing feed reserves available in dry times.

• Use different crop types and varieties and spread planting over a number of weeks to reduce the exposure of crops to weather damage at critical stages such as flowering and harvest time (Ridge and Wylie, 1996b).

• Use minimum- or zero-tillage systems that make efficient use of rainfall and that can outyield conventionally sown crops in dry years. Minimum-tillage cropping systems also provide greater flexibility in the timing of sowing operations.

• Use fallows to reduce a crop's reliance on growing-season rainfall.

• Provide shelter and windbreaks for livestock to reduce feed demand, improve animal production, and minimize livestock losses.

• Correct nutrient deficiencies and implement an integrated pest management program to improve the vigor of crops and pastures so they can better cope with climate variability.

• Use irrigation, where the opportunity exists, to overcome water deficits at critical growth stages of crops and pastures.

• Use netting to protect horticultural crops from hail damage.

• Carry out farm operations in a timely manner.

• Store or carry over grain or other products from productive years when prices are low to either use or sell at a later time.

• Reduce fuel loads and put in firebreaks before the bushfire season.

• Broaden the income base through off-farm investments and manage price risk by using forward contracts, futures, and hedging in response to commodity market fluctuations or seasonal forecasts.

MANAGING THE EXTREMES—DROUGHTS AND FLOODS

The experience of the extreme effects of climate, droughts, and floods generally provide the catalyst for change in management practices. However, many farmers tend to downplay the likelihood of these extreme events when not operating in them (Nicholls, 2000). This is made evident in the following quote: "We farmers should be planning for drought every day. What causes change for us is mostly drought. When we aren't in a drought we don't think about it" (Tim Wright, grazier, Uralla, NSW, personal communication).

The harsh experience of drought and floods shows that it is essential to have a strategy in place. These strategies should be based on local experience, an understanding of the local climate record, and the frequency of these events. Once developed, the strategies can be further guided and adapted according to seasonal forecasts and by calculating rainfall deciles to assess how dry or wet a month is compared to local historical rainfall figures. Deciles are calculated by ranking the rainfall record from lowest to highest recordings into 10 percent bands. Probability charts using rainfall deciles can be used to determine the probability of a certain amount of rainfall for making tactical decisions.

Droughts

Droughts are frequent but irregular events. Farmers and graziers generally refer to drought when the available rainfall over a period of time is not enough to give adequate plant growth and there is a major loss of agricultural production (see Chapter 5). Within some agricultural industries there can be differences of emphasis; references to a "feed" drought, "protein" drought, and "water" drought are common in the livestock sector.

During a drought, farm managers face a multitude of issues. By developing a personal plan, based on an assessment of resources and climatic risks, farm managers will be in a better position to manage a property through drought. A drought plan has four major components:

1. Identification of the risks to enterprises. This requires an estimate of the critical time(s) for rainfall and the absolute minimum needed to operate. This will depend on the enterprises. For example, breeding programs are at greater risk than stock trading.

2. Analysis of the local climate to find the chances of the risk occurring. This analysis is used to answer the following questions:

• How often has the essential rain failed to come?

• How long do low rainfall periods last on average?

• Are they more likely at one time of the year?

• What seasonal forecasting tools can be used?

3. Identification of factors to monitor. As well as measuring rainfall directly, the physical factors critical to an enterprise also need to be monitored. For example, limits need to be set on how much pasture loss can be accepted before some action must be taken to protect them. Factors to consider include

• percentage of groundcover,

• species change and weed percentage per paddock, and

4. Formulation of an action plan. The most difficult decisions involve livestock. Cropping tends to have more yes/no decisions, but in stock management there is a wide range of options. The most sensitive and the most forgiving areas under drought management practices need to be identified. These will include

• areas to be protected from stock,

• areas that need additional fences or watering points,

• priority areas for pest and weed control, including unwanted grazing by native animals,

• which classes of stock to sell, and

• whether to sell or agist stock.

Floods

Floods cause losses to stock and damage crops, pastures, and road and rail links. They also often put at risk the lives and economic well-being of rural communities. A flood management strategy should include the following elements:

• An identification of flood-prone land and the flooding history of the area

• An understanding of flood warnings and from where the flood patterns come

• Paddock and fence design to allow easy movement of stock, so that stock will not be trapped in floods

• "All weather" access tracks where possible

• An arrangement for fodder storage that is always accessible

• A flood evacuation plan that includes the relocation of stock and equipment

• Farm infrastructure checks, for example, the switching off of electrical supplies to buildings that may be flooded

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