Adapting to a changing climate

Through the Climate Change Research Program (CCRP), the Australian Government funded targeted adaptation projects to equip primary producers with the knowledge, tools and strategies to meet the challenges of the changing climate.

Key Points

  • New, localised climate information allowed researchers to test the future viability of adaptation practices at the farm level.
  • To strengthen the future of Australia’s crop and pasture production, researchers examined the impacts of increased carbon dioxide and temperature on yield.
  • Practical on–farm solutions to reduce livestock heat stress were developed.
  • Researchers investigated the potential of expanding agricultural industries like peanuts and cotton to new regions.

Researchers developed viable climate adaptation practices that support the sustainable future of Australian agriculture. These practices reduce the sector’s vulnerability to changes in climate and allow the industry to remain productive and capitalise on new opportunities.

CCRP Adaptation Research Program

The CCRP adaptation projects funded across Australia were:

  • produced localised climate information to explore the viability of adaptation responses
  • tested the response of wheat and sorghum to increases in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2)
  • examined new ways to monitor and reduce heat stress in livestock
  • examined the benefits and constraints to expanding the peanut industry into the Northern Territory
  • determined the costs and opportunities of relocating tomato, cotton and rice production to northern Australia
  • secured the future of Australia’s wine industry by improving management practices and grape varieties
  • developed plans to reduce the impact of climate change on Australia’s south eastern fishing and aquaculture industry
  • implemented new and sustainable ways to manage livestock in Australia
  • worked with crop and livestock farmers to test seasonal risk management responses for their potential to reduce the impacts of climate change.

Why is adapting important?

Greenhouse gases have a long life–span, so even if efforts to reduce and stabilise future emissions are successful, some impacts from existing greenhouse gases are unavoidable.

Both maximum and minimum temperatures are expected to rise across the country, resulting in an average increase of between 0.6°C and 1.5°C by 2030. The intensity and incidence of severe weather events are also set to increase over the coming decades. An increase in the number of dry days is also expected across the country.

These impacts will increase production risks for agriculture, such as:

  • shifts in the extent and severity of pest and disease outbreaks
  • reduced predictability of seasons
  • plant and animal heat stress
  • crop and livestock losses from flood and drought
  • changes in regional suitability of certain production systems.

Adapting agriculture to climate change will help to reduce the negative effects of these production risks, ensuring the sustainable future of Australia’s agriculture.

Adapting wheat and sorghum cropping in Australia

Changes in climate are expected to impact on Australia’s $22 billion1 crop industry in a number of ways. Increased temperatures may change the locations where crops can be grown, and elevated CO2 levels could affect crop growth and grain yield. Research is underway across the country to develop crop varieties as well as cropping practices for the future.

In open air experiments at the Department of Primary Industries Victoria in Horsham, CCRP researchers found that elevated CO2 levels can increase wheat grain yield and plant biomass. Tiller numbers and leaf size also increased across a number of wheat varieties. However, increases like these are dependent on wheat variety, sowing time and irrigation. Plant (and grain) nitrogen levels were reduced by between 4 and 11 per cent.

While results show that elevated CO2 alone may increase growth and yield in wheat varieties, it is expected that increased occurrence of high temperature events and seasonal shifts in rainfall will significantly reduce this benefit. At CSIRO, CCRP researchers used in–field ‘tunnels’ and glasshouses to examine the response of different wheat varieties to combinations of elevated CO2, high temperature and drought. With this information plant breeders will be able to develop new ‘climate change ready’ varieties. Simulation models were used to examine how farmers could adjust variety selection and planting dates to avoid high temperatures around flowering and to maximise efficient use of rainfall.

For sorghum, elevated CO2 had little direct impact on growth, but increasing temperatures were of great concern. Researchers at the University of Queensland found that prolonged high temperatures increased development rates, leaf number and leaf appearance rate in sorghum varieties. These shorter development periods (i.e. earlier flowering and maturity) resulted in lower yields, with the greatest yield reductions occurred when temperatures exceed 36°C.

Using climate and crop models, CCRP researchers at CSIRO analysed the adaptation potential of a range of crop management practices. Early results showed that in New South Wales, using fallow periods to conserve soil moisture, increasing pasture in the rotation, and retaining crop residues all helped offset potential yield losses resulting from future warmer and drier conditions.

Managing heat stress in livestock

Climate change is expected to increase the number of days each year that livestock experience heat stress. Animals with heat stress have a reduced appetite and are less likely to breed, resulting in possible productivity losses for the $19 billion1 livestock industry.

CCRP researchers at the University of Melbourne have found that low doses of the amino acid betaine can reduce the impact of heat stress on sheep. Betaine is a naturally occurring amino–acid found in plants and invertebrates. The effect of betaine on cattle was tested.

These researchers looked at the relationship between heat stress and ryegrass toxicity. Early findings show that high temperatures can increase the impact of perennial ryegrass toxicity in sheep, causing them to drink and eat less, and respire more.

Researchers also developed an online tool to help dairy farmers and feedlot cattle owners manage heat stress in cattle. The Dairy Risk Assessment Program uses an updated heat stress equation that incorporates wind speed, humidity and temperature. It also allows for the user to input details about the herd and animal management practices.

Adapting livestock management

CCRP researchers examined practices that can limit climate change impacts on livestock production. These include:

  • changing stocking rates
  • rotational grazing methods
  • improving pastures
  • planting forage crops and pasture legumes
  • improving breeder herd efficiency
  • improving soil carbon and soil health
  • placing livestock in drought–lots
  • altering the proportion of cropping and livestock in mixed enterprises
  • improving water use efficiency
  • sowing improved pastures
  • managing animal nutrition
  • developing infrastructure (e.g. watering points, fencing)
  • resting pasture during the growing season in northern Australia (wet season spelling)
  • controlling woody weeds
  • using prescribed burning regimes in northern Australia.

Through on–farm demonstration researchers investigated the best combinations of these management options to build resilience through increased productivity and reduce the vulnerability of the livestock industry to climate change.

Snapshot: climate change impacts on pasture production

As part of the Climate Change Research Program’s Climate change adaptation in the southern Australian livestock industries project, the CSIRO investigated the likely impact of climate change on pasture growth at eight sites in southern NSW. Four climate models were used to project potential future climates in 2030, 2050 and 2070 for each site. These projections were then used to model the effects of future climates on pasture dynamics using a pasture modelling tool.

This pasture growth modelling based on the climate projections for each site projects a progressive shortening of the growing season for most sites, compared with the historical pattern of pasture growth. These regionally focused pasture growth projections helped livestock managers to understand how they may need to alter their business models to account for these expected changes in pasture production.

Transforming agriculture – peanut expansion in the NT

The Kingaroy region in Queensland is the traditional home of Australia’s peanut industry. However, production has decreased 70 per cent in the past 25 years due mainly to a reduction in summer rainfall. CCRP researchers examined the viability of expanding peanut production to Katherine in the Northern Territory, which is becoming wetter in summer. This type of major shift in production location is called a transformational change and comes with both high elements of risk and opportunity.

CCRP researchers examined the viability of this transformation by looking closely at production potential, market opportunities, sustainability and social factors associated with the shift. Social survey results show that the success of the potential expansion into Katherine would be dependent upon:

  • an ability to engage with and contribute to the community
  • finding and establishing suitable rotation crops
  • finding and maintaining quality labour and technical staff
  • securing water and installing infrastructure.

Climate modelling has shown that while climate change may make growing peanuts in Kingaroy in summer more difficult, projected temperature increases in winter may improve rotational winter cropping in the region.

Producing local climate data

Researchers worked on the Consistent Climate Scenarios Project to generate new localised climate data for Australian farming regions. This work produced climate information for the years 2030 and 2050 that can be used in a variety of crop and pasture production models. For example, daily data from this project on rainfall, evaporation and temperature were used to analyse how wheat crops respond to future changes in climate. This data helped to analyse the viability of different adaptation strategies.

Partnerships

Research presented in this fact sheet is a result of partnerships between:

  • CSIRO
  • Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia
  • Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation, Queensland
  • Department of Primary Industries Victoria
  • Grains Research and Development Corporation
  • Industry and Investment New South Wales
  • Meat and Livestock Australia
  • North Australian Pastoral Company
  • Northern Territory Department of Resources
  • South Australian Research and Development Institute
  • Tasmanian Institute of Agricultural Research
  • University of Melbourne.

Reference

1. DAFF. (2010). Australia’s Agriculture Fisheries and Forestry At a Glance. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.