Drought management in a more extreme climate

| January 21, 2014

With the current severe dry spell, Australia’s drought assistance policies focus entirely on crisis mitigation. Wool, beef and lamb producer Anthony Waugh suggests we should assist our farmers in good times and help them adjust their management to prepare for more difficult times.

Droughts and floods, which are really two sides of the same coin, have been a part of the Australian climate for as far back as anyone, including those who have been here for tens of thousands of years can recall. With all the experts in the field telling us to expect more frequent and more extreme weather events, it’s imperative that we farmers factor this into our planning.

With average rainfall occurring very rarely, we need to think carefully about how we manage the land, in order to reduce the negative effects of the more extreme climate we are facing. The best approach to this is to store more water in the very wet times, so it is available in the very dry times. The only efficient way to store water is in healthy living soil.

Soil is the basis of all life on the planet; a rich, biologically diverse super-organism, containing billions of organisms per cubic centimetre, from microscopic bacteria, through to fungi and larger invertebrates such as worms and nematodes.

These organisms work together to build humus, one of the largest, most complex molecules we know, which, due to its enormous number of bonding sites, can hold water as well as vital nutrients. Healthy soil is our defence against both flood and drought, as it prevents excess runoff, limiting the damage done by floodwaters and stores water in lieu of dry times.

Conventional farming methods are the enemy of healthy soil. Chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and bare ground all damage the delicate environment required by the community of life in the soil. All these are used in order to force higher production in the short term, at the expense of that which provides fertility and water holding capacity in the long term.

The good news is that with good management it’s relatively easy to build healthy soil. By producing less in the good years, using the excess capacity to build fertility and resilience into our agricultural land, we can increase our ability to produce in the very wet and very dry years. Properly managed, this leads to similar rates of production over the longer term with the added benefit of more stable, predictable income over the long term climatic cycles.

Our drought assistance policies focus entirely on crisis mitigation. While this is currently necessary to keep farmers from going broke, we could change the focus to provide assistance to farmers in good times, to help them to adjust their management to better mitigate against the more difficult times. Tree and shrub planting, creek and wetland restoration, fencing for better grazing management are some examples of how “drought money” could be spent in years of good rainfall to insure against the inevitable dry years. While the current drought assistance system is necessary for now, this type of capital investment would be a better long term insurance against extremes of weather.

We have been implementing these types of works on our property, where we grow fine wool, beef and lamb on fairly marginal country. During the current dry spell, which is one of the worst we’ve seen, we haven’t needed to destock or provide supplementary feed for our animals. We stock at a lower rate than the land can handle in a good year, which means we have feed reserves for the poorer years and can maintain our herd through the toughest of times. This is important to us, as it is not easy to reproduce the genetics and the herd culture which are built up over a long period of time.

The tools needed for effective drought management are all at our disposal; they are naturally occurring processes, we need only encourage them to take place. We don’t require better technology or more science to understand these systems – as farmers we observe them at work every day. We can use these observations to inform our actions. If an area with more trees had better grass during the drought, then the message is pretty clear. By taking note of how our land responds to hard times, we can use the better times to sure up our farms and our livelihoods for the next dry spell.