Adapting Farming Practices to A Changing Climate
The agriculture sector in Australia is crucial to both our society and economy. It fills our plates with food, offers a variety of job options, and boosts our economy through exports. It is also one of the sectors most vulnerable to climate change, being susceptible to variations in temperature, rainfall, and extreme weather.
While the changing climate makes agriculture vulnerable, it can also be a contributor to the growing issue. Adaption is important, so how can we continue to provide produce to the nation when climate change threatens our practices?
How Is Climate Change Impacting Australian Farms?
Australia has identified a recent shift towards higher temperatures consequently having significant effects on many farmers. Despite these changes and trends, there still remains uncertainty of the long-term effect climate change may be having on farming.
The State of the Climate report for 2020 showed that from 1910, Australia’s climate has warmed by an average of 1.4°C. In addition to this, there has also been a decline in the winter season rainfall in both Southwestern Australia and Southeastern Australia.
Australian farmers are under additional stress because of the recent rise in extreme and intense drought, flooding, and temperature unpredictability linked to climate change. Farmers now need to adjust their agricultural operations to be productive and economical amid changing climatic circumstances and market volatility.
Changing rainfall patterns can lead to four main risks:
Quantity and quality of crops
Changes in rainfall can cause extreme difficulty for the maintenance of crop yields and pasture health – which inadvertently has the power to affect your cattle.
Farmers are aware of the detrimental impact pests and diseases can have on crops and livestock. Pesticide application may not be an effective solution as over time pests build a resistance while still continuing to negatively affect the environment.
Heat stress on livestock
Cattle and livestock experiencing heat stress lead to reduced appetites and a lower likelihood of breeding, which affects productivity.
Distribution of livestock and crops
Crops may become unviable in their existing growing zones as a result; for instance, grape vines used in the production of wine may need to be relocated to cooler regions to maintain their quality attributes. The yield of hay and pasture for animals is decreased by less rainfall and higher temperatures.
Adapting to The Changing Climate
The agriculture industry is fundamental to our society, domestically producing over 90 per cent of Australian food. On top of sustaining us, a large number of communities within regional towns rely on agricultural success for their work.
In response to the recent climate shifts, there is evidence of strong farm adaptation responses with the help of improvements in technology and management practices which are helping increase farm productivity.
So how can we reduce livestock greenhouse gas emissions?
Diet supplements and feed alternatives
There is currently a range of dietary supplements and feed alternatives that are being trialled to assess if these dietary changes can reduce methane emissions from livestock. These include probiotics, enzymes, oils, fats and Australian native vegetation.
There is research to suggest that including plant secondary compounds in the diet of livestock can reduce methane production by 13–16%. Plant saponins are another ingredient with the potential to aid in the reduction of methane.
Rehabilitate Degraded Pastures
In Australia, land degradation is caused by factors such as water erosion, wind erosion, soil fertility decline, soil salinity and soil acidification. Degraded lands are prone to erosion which in turn retain less water, have less nutritious grass for feeding animals and also contribute to low productivity in livestock.
A conventional way to rehabilitate degraded pastures is through the application of fertilizers. Although effective, sometimes this isn’t the most sustainable practice for farmers due to the requirements for new fertilizers every couple of years. This option can contribute to new, sustainable ways in which animals are raised and combines grazing with trees to improve the overall health of the soil as well as the wellbeing of animals.
Reduced local temperatures, increased air humidity, and increased resistance against heatwaves, droughts and against natural disasters are all advantages of the rehabilitation of degraded pastures.
Pastures with lower fibre and higher soluble carbohydrates are the key to reducing methane production in cattle. Improving pasture quality can be done through plant breeding or switching from tropical to temperate grasses which use different pathways to capture carbon dioxide.
Improving the quality of pastures can result in a reduced level of fibre, greater levels of carbohydrates, increased animal performance and yield responses as well as a reduced overall methane production.
The digestion of feed in the rumen (stomach fermentation chamber) of cattle produces about 60% of the methane emissions in the by-product. Farmers are continually expanding their expertise to better balance feed rations and ensure livestock diets contain the right amounts of energy, protein, and fibre, promoting rumen function.
Methane emissions are commonly lower with more forage legumes in the diet, partly due to the low fibre content. An appropriate diet can increase an animal’s development while decreasing methane generation, lowering the intensity of glasshouse gases.
Creating a plan, conducting research and adapting to sustainable management systems will help our Australian farmers combat the growing issue of climate change.