$8M climate project: Is it worth it?

A MULTI-MILLION dollar climate project to help farmers better manage climate variability has been launched by the Queensland Government.

The program aims to improve the accuracy of long-term climate forecasts as well as providing farmers with education about using climate forecast tools to make serious, far-reaching decisions about their business.

This week, Rural Weekly investigates the practicality of the project, with insights from researchers, professors and farmers.

WHAT IS IT?

THE project, The Northern Australian Climate Program, is a collaboration between the Queensland Government, Meat and Livestock Australia and the University of Southern Queensland.

At the launch of the program, Minister for Agricultural Industry Development Mark Furner said it was important to invest in research to better prepare for the future.

"Research includes working with national and international climate modellers to improve seasonal forecasts and improving predictions of multi-year droughts," he said.

"Our focus is to help producers build resilience and increase business productivity, leading to more profitable and sustainable grazing businesses.

"This will be achieved by developing resources that will focus on reducing land degradation and boosting productivity in our variable climate through a range of tools, digital technologies and networks."

The $8million partnership consists of a $3million contribution from the Queensland Government, $4million from MLA through the MLA Donor Company (MDC), and $960,000 from USQ. The program will run for four years.

The USQ research team, headed by Roger Stone, is working towards improving both the accuracy and the resolution of climate forecasts, meaning they want to be able to have more accurate weather predictions over a longer period of time and for more concentrated areas.

The program will provide workshops to improve awareness of how to utilise climate forecast tools when making serious far-reaching decisions about the impact of climate variability on their business.

Farmer champions, known as climate mates in this project, will be engaged across northern Australia to lead the way with the adoption of tools, as well as providing feedback on how to improve functionality and user appeal.

There will also be a major effort to link to all the existing extension services already operating across northern Australia.

PRODUCERS' THOUGHTS

Angus Emmott

BEEF cattle farmer from southwest of Longreach, Queensland, and Farmers for Climate Action board member.

Mr Emmott said he was hopeful that investment into this program would result in a tool that could accurately predict weather forecasts and help farmers be more confident making long-term decisions.

"If we get to the point where we have a lot of confidence in the weather forecasting it actually allows us to get stock off the country when we need to and it allows us to be confident about buying stock," he said.

"It just has a whole host of benefits that we don't have at the moment.

"As forecasting gets better and better, it becomes much easier to make decisions which have large impacts on land conditions and on your bottom line with regard to finance."

Mr Emmott said once these forecasts are available to farmers they need to be available across a number of platforms.

"Everyone has their own way of sourcing the information," he said

"Some people will just listen for it on rural radio shows, others will look on websites or have their own particular apps.

"I think it's important that they keep that in mind when they do make the forecasts available. People are more and more reliant on the internet, and we still have a challenge in rural areas with the internet being pretty bad at times."

Rob Loughnan

BEEF cattle farmer from Injune, Queensland, who is sceptical about the program.

"I'm not convinced it'll work in the case of climate. It's very hard to predict the future, particularly when you're talking about cattle markets and commodity markets," he said.

"I think there are way too many variables. Even when we look back at the El Nino event some years ago, that was a negative event for a lot of different parts of Queensland, but here we actually did quite well because of the higher incidences of thunderstorms.

"I don't think it will be money well spent. I don't think you're going to come off with one-size-fits-all data that you can predictably work off."

Mick Alexander

ORGANIC cattle producer and Grazing Bestprac educator from Alton Downs, Central Queensland, who is also sceptical about the ability to make accurate forecasts in a more concentrated area.

"I think part of the problem is that they aren't doing a very good job on the short-term predictions, let alone going into long term," he said.

"Long-term predictions might be the whole of northern Australia or southern Australia. They can give predictions long-term, saying over a vast area there's going to be increased rainfall or decreased rainfall, but they can't predict more accurately than that.

"I don't think it's the fault of the bureau so much, I think it's the fault of the climate the way it is. No matter how accurate they get it, it doesn't necessarily mean everyone in the region is getting rain."

Mr Alexander said they had missed out on a number of large weather events in their area while neighbouring farms had gotten rain.

"You're watching your neighbours down the road, 10 kilometres away, getting good rain and your own paddocks are dry."

Mr Alexander said the goal for farmers was to be prepared for whatever weather does occur, and while better predictive tools were needed, so was the ability to manage it.

"I think more than anything, instead of this project trying to predict better, the funding could possibly be better spent educating farmers or researching how we can better prepare for whatever is coming." he said.

"It would be nice to have a tool to tell you when it's going to be wet but it would be nicer to have the ability to have your land in the right condition.

"Understanding weather predicting is a really important part of increasing carbon in our soils. Because if we don't know what the season is going to be it makes it difficult to manage it to keep it in good order."

Mr Alexander said the only way to manage drought in any situation was to have high carbon levels in the soil so if it did rain the soil was ready to take the moisture in.

"With good carbon in our soils it helps us make use of the good rain that falls and it helps to weather the droughts when they come."

FROM MLA

DOUG McNicholl, research and development program manager at MLA, said that one of the largest risks to operating in the meat and livestock industry was climate variability.

"The climate is going to be variable, but the more information we can generate, and improving the accuracy of that information over time, is ultimately going to increase profitability and productivity within our industry," he said.

"This tool gives us a basis to understanding when it's going to rain, how much it's going to rain, and equally when it's not going to rain and for what extended period.

"Which then means farmers can understand how much grass they can grow and that, coupled with things around market trends, ultimately helps them make decisions around when they sell stock, when they produce, and helps them develop their business models over time.

"What the researchers are aiming to achieve is to improve the accuracy of the forecast but also the resolution.

"Not only have a probability of understanding the occurrence of an event but also the likelihood of it occurring at a more granular level on a farm.

"So at the moment it's at a large regional level, something like a 250km resolution around climatic events. We're hoping to get that down to about 60km."

Mr McNicholl said three-month seasonal forecasts can work well during El Nino and La Nina episodes, but there was a need for one-four week 'intra-seasonal' forecasts that are better for farm decision making, as well as longer term forecasts on a year or multi-year scale.

"There is a need to address seasonal forecast shortfalls when an El Nino or La Nina doesn't eventuate, and this will be a major focus of this project," he said.

FROM USQ

USQ vice-chancellor, Professor Geraldine Mackenzie, said USQ is recognised as a global leader in climate science research and its application in agricultural decision making.

"The Northern Australia Climate Program brings together climate scientists and drought specialists from USQ, the Queensland Government, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, the UK Met Office, and the US National Drought Mitigation Centre," she said.

"It will improve monitoring and planning for drought and support producers to make better use of climate information in decision making."

Professor Steven Raine, executive director of the Institute for Agriculture and Environment at USQ, said they were focusing on improving the spacial resolution as well as the temporal resolution of their predictions. They are currently able to predict climate variability from six to 12 months in advance.

"What we want to do through this project is extend that capability out so that we are now predicting two, three, four years in advance," he said.

"The critical things that come from that when you're a producer are trying to make decisions going into a drought, not really knowing how long the drought is. If it's six months your decision making might be quite different to if it's 12 months or if it's two years or three years.

"So you can understand that the better we can predict those multi-year droughts, the better we will be able to help the industry make those early management decisions they need to make - to destock or manage their pastures - and then, importantly, at the end of that drought we'll be able to give them better advanced warning of when they could expect rain to occur and can start to think about restocking."

Professor Raine said the climate we experience in one particular area is related to a lot of physical processes at a global level.

"What we're better understanding now is that there are subtle fluctuations in sea temperature at depth and some of the airflows that are closer down towards the poles," he said.

"That then influences some of these longer term trends."