How farmers are adapting to climate change in Australia

Published: November 2019 I By: Samantha Noon, Main photography: Nick Cubbin

Whether you think changing weather is natural, man-made or a myth, farmers are on the frontline of innovation. But is the government taking climate action seriously?

Lucinda Corrigan with stud cows and calves at her Rennylea property in the Murray Valley. In the background are her son Anthony, husband Bryan and daughter Ruth. Photography by Nick Cubbin. 
RUNNING 800 bulls and supplying genetics for the beef industry is demanding in the best of seasons. As a way to create more flexibility and reduce the risk of drought, Lucinda Corrigan, her husband Bryan and children Ruth and Anthony – the fifth generation to work the property – have implemented an impressive livestock management system. 

Their aim is to help preserve resources on their family’s near-150-year-old 3,800-hectare enterprise, Rennylea Angus. Operating as a 3,500-head Angus cattle stud, it spans seven properties, some leased, in the Murray Valley between Albury and Holbrook. 

“The first thing that we’ve done much more successfully, in the past few years since the Millennium drought, is protect our soil resources by better management of livestock, using the water when it falls more efficiently and preserving it in pasture and in the landscape.”

Compared to other regions, Lucinda says they are in the best of NSW right now. But they’re facing their third failed spring in a row, with 280mm of rain to the end of September this year at Culcairn, and 100mm more at Rennylea, in a region that averages between 600mm-700mm. “We’re preparing for the worst – it’s pretty unprecedented really,” says Lucinda.

The Corrigans have been gearing up for increasingly tough conditions for the past 30 years, including planting 100,000 trees across their farming enterprise. “Our natural assets will help make farming systems more resilient,” Lucinda says. 


Anthony Corrigan checks the solar powered bore on their property near Culcairn. The bore is relatively water-secure. 

As a step further, they are planning to become carbon neutral in the next decade, in keeping with the red meat industry’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2030. 

None of this is particularly easy, Lucinda adds, and it’s quite expensive, but what it offers in capacity makes it worthwhile. It will require a complete overhaul of their emissions, currently dominated by 75% methane, re-evaluating transport, stationary energy, electricity, water, feed, soil and planning a $100,000 solar investment. “We’re at the beginning of this journey,” Lucinda says.

Along with the Angus herd, including 1,500 cows and replacement heifers, the family members run a handful of composite prime lambs and grow perennial pastures and legumes. 

They are beginning to experiment with the viability of anti-methanogenic shrubs (to reduce methane emissions) and feeding stock a mix of hay, a small quantity of grain, high-protein pellets and silage, all of which undergoes feed tests averaging up to 16% protein and 11 megajoules of energy.  


Lucinda in the containment area they’ve created to feed calves – it’s a way of reducing grazing pressures, including ground cover loss and soil erosion. 

As a way to reduce grazing pressures, risk of overgrazing, ground cover loss and soil erosion, they’ve created a containment area for feeding 1,000 calves (1,500 tonnes of silage over five months, each season) and are developing 40ha of irrigated fodder crops. These will feed heifers and a portion of the calves, to create a more secure feed source and future drought proofing. 

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“We’ve done a cost per megajoule budget, it’s all about how efficient this system is and how much dry matter is in the paddock,” says Lucinda.

This was planned to be operational by October with an upgraded bore and two centre pivots costing $250,000, funded by the Farm Innovation Fund. They’ve also worked with Local Land Services to navigate the land management code to remove a small number of paddock trees without set asides, due to past voluntary revegetation practices. 

“It’s about understanding where we are, how much emissions we have mitigated and what we can do,” Lucinda says of their aspirational plans. When others ask where to start, she suggests an audit of the farm to create a baseline to identify achievable outcomes. 

“I feel concerned about the future viability of farms. The way forward is not completely clear for everybody, is it?”
 
Seaweed supplement set to cut methane emissions by 80%


CSIRO scientist Dr Rob Kinley, technology lead of the FutureFeed seaweed supplement project, shows off the product. Supplied by the CSIRO. 

There is a glimmer of hope for reducing methane emissions from an unexpected place – the ocean. The red macroalgae (seaweed) species, Asparagopsis, which is endemic to most regions across the globe has been fed to livestock for thousands of years, is garnering a new-found value today. 

It’s offering livestock producers a natural solution to reduce methane emissions by more than 80%. This supersedes other macroalgae species by a mile, with average reduction rates of 20-30%, according to the CSIRO
 
“Normally there’s a trade-off with technology and environmental applications,” says Justin Harsdorf, commercial lead of the revolutionary seaweed supplement, FutureFeed. Created by the CSIRO, teamed with Meat & Livestock Australia and James Cook University, it’s expected to be on the market in two years, promising a win-win for farmers. 

Not only will it help cut methane emissions, which account for about 66% of Australia’s agricultural emissions, but the seaweed supplement increases livestock productivity, decreases feed expenses and will be an accredited carbon emissions reduction product, meaning a bonus revenue for farmers. 
 
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“This is another angle to attract producers, who will have the ability to earn carbon credits,” Justin says. 

“There are three ways to grow seaweed. You can put it in tanks on land adjacent to the sea as it can only grow in seawater environments, cultivate it on ropes in tubes in the ocean or wild harvest it where scuba divers go down and collect it by hand, which is what we’re doing at the moment.” 
 

The cattle feed features a variety of seaweed that can significantly reduce livestock methane emissions and increase productivity.

The product is currently freeze dried, with a 1-2% inclusion of dietary intake and a goal to pelletise the seaweed in the future, which will come at an additional cost, he says. 

“We’re really keen to get a product into the market and allow the industry to benefit from that first and then look at alternatives to how we can develop that further.” 

So how does seaweed cut methane out of the equation? “When a cow burps and it’s not coming out the other end, the methane represents about 10-12% of the energy that’s lost from the animal and the process of [eating] the seaweed actually breaks down the last process of creating that methane, therefore that energy is absorbed into the animal. That’s how you get the additional productivity, i.e. weight gain or milk production.” 
 

Dr Rob Kinley feeding beef cattle in Northern Australia. Source: CSIRO. 

As the business scales up, the cost will reduce significantly, he says with market price starting around $20-$30/kg. “We’re putting in commercialisation structures at the moment including seaweed production facilities.” 

CSIRO plans to grow the product in two coastal locations in Australia, which are likely to be in Queensland and Tasmania, Justin says, as these states are temperate and tropical which de-risk cultivation and will ensure supply all year round. 

“The opportunities for feedlots and dairy farmers will be significant. In feedlot environments livestock can eat up to 12kg a day and dairy cattle can eat in excess of 30kg. If they can guarantee a 1% increase in productivity every feedlot in Australia would do it, but CSIRO believes there could be a 10% increase in productivity,” Justin says.  

Climate change in Australia and how we stack up

While the benefits of seaweed and other methane-reduction projects show great potential for the industry, there is a lot more to be done. 

In 2015, NSW Farmers put climate change on the annual conference agenda and voted in policy acknowledging the changing climatic conditions and increased climate variability, plus the need to continue pursuing emission reduction contributions within agriculture. 

Since then, the topic has grown into one of the most heavily debated issues of our time. While many argue humans are not responsible for the changes in our climate, NASA’s Global Climate Change website says, “Ninety-seven per cent of climate scientists agree climate-warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activities.” 
 
A special report on climate change and land, released in August by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), paints an ugly picture of what our future could look like – if business continues as usual. Following the report’s release, Professor Mark Howden, director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute and an IPCC vice chair, wrote an opinion piece for The Conversation.

“Emissions from land use, largely agriculture, forestry and land clearing, make up some 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Professor Howden wrote. 
 

Source: Department of Agriculture. 

“Counting the entire food chain (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale) takes this contribution up to 29%.

“The report, which synthesises information from some 7,000 scientific papers, found there is no way to keep global warming under 2% without significant reductions in land sector emissions.

“Improving how we manage the land could reduce climate change at the same time as it improves agricultural sustainability, supports biodiversity, and increases food security.”
 
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Australia’s total greenhouse emissions are 1.3% of the global output, but the nation accounts for just 0.3% of the world population, meaning we have one of the highest per capita emissions at 22tCO2e, compared to China at 8.5tCO2e for 2014. The Climate Council states agriculture emissions would need to be reduced by 23% to meet Australia’s 2030 targets to have any chance of keeping global warming under 2°C. 

Farmers key to climate change solutions with carbon sequestration

But there is a silver lining. The IPCC report says agricultural land is also the key to our solution. Land-based ecosystems have the ability to absorb 22% of global greenhouse emissions through natural carbon processes. 

This means farmers can store carbon in soil and plants, in both farmed lands and managed forests, and in natural “carbon sinks” such as forests, seagrass and wetlands. This is exactly what Lucinda Corrigan’s family and many others in NSW are working towards.  

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“People are searching for the most efficient way to use their resources,” says Lucinda, who believes there are great opportunities in embracing the natural elements at our fingertips, known as the ‘low-carbon economy’. 

“If we care and look after our natural capital: the soil, the water, the landscape and biodiversity we work with, then I think what will change is society will help us share the costs of managing the landscape,” Lucinda says.  

Australian emissions by sector


Source: Department of the Environment and Energy. 

In February 2019, the Australian government established the $2 billion Climate Solutions Fund – part of a $3.5 billion package to continue purchasing low-cost abatement, which builds upon the Emissions Reduction Fund and enables farmers to earn carbon credits. 

This means undertaking emission-reduction projects through the voluntary Carbon Farming Initiative, such as cattle herd management, feeding supplements containing nitrate and measuring soil carbon sequestration. 

Whether or not the increasingly tough conditions are recognised as climate change depends on how you ask the question, says Lucinda. 

“If you ask most people in the Riverina ‘are you seeing changes in your growing season, the onset of winter and summer, reliability of rainfall events, or in the variability of springs versus the unreliable of autumns’, most people will say ‘yes, I’m definitely seeing changes and those changes are happening much more quickly than they used to’.” 
 

Lucinda walks past a row of planted trees on her property. Her family has been gearing up for tough times for the past 30 years.

The most important point is that we just need to do something, she says. Despite the challenges, Lucinda remains optimistic about the future of agriculture. 

“You wouldn’t push on and keep doing these things if you didn’t believe in it. I don’t meet an intergenerational farmer who doesn’t want to do what they’re doing better.” 

Farmers are responsible for 48% of Australia’s privately owned or leased land, and Lucinda feels the messaging around the role of farmers and climate isn’t quite right. 

“The conservation agenda is actually our agenda and it’s been taken from us by other parts of society and I’m mad about that,” she says. 

“I’m no longer going to accept the people who call themselves green activists. They’re not real, they don’t work in this world. We do and we’re trying to make this work.

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“The farming community is naturally conservative because we’re dealing with the elements and conservation is our agenda. I think the two are completely aligned and I think the idea that they’re not is nonsense.”
 
Farmers remain positive despite ongoing drought in NSW

With some areas of NSW now in their third year of drought, two in five farmers are expecting conditions to further worsen and 25% are expecting little change, according to the latest Rabobank Rural Confidence Survey. 

Toby Mendl, the bank’s regional manager for Central NSW, says there has been “very little rain of note” anywhere in the state during winter, with areas such as Dubbo receiving half their average rainfall this year. 

“While farmers know it will rain, the longer the drought wears on, the longer it will take to recover when the season breaks – with graziers taking two or three years to rebuild herds.” 
 
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Despite more than 99% of NSW being in drought or drought affected, commodity prices and property values remain relatively strong with low interest rates, and farmers indicate they’re hopeful for the future. Of those surveyed, 15% plan to increase investment, 58% intend to maintain investment at current levels and 24% want to wind back investment. Toby says, “They’re just waiting for the key ingredient, rain.” 
 

Agronomist and deputy chair of NSW Farmers’ Young Farmer Council Martin Murray, of Armatree in North West NSW, says that modern agriculture techniques and technology are improving the livelihoods of farmers. Photography by Nick Cubbin. 

Martin says it’s been tough for growers in his community with a heavy storm in March bringing 60-90mm of rain pre-planting and 30mm in May, but nothing since.

“The fact that anyone has a crop is a testament to the tools that we have available and modern agriculture,” he says. 

“The biggest message getting around in our district is ground cover is king and you need to do whatever you can to maintain it. It’s vital for our farming systems particularly at the moment. We can’t live without it.” 

Agritech solutions play a vital role in protecting the future of farming

Armatree has a cracking community, Martin adds, and young farmers are very adaptive to trying new ideas. At the NSW Farmers annual conference earlier this year, Martin put forward a motion to support the development of alternative energy sources that meet existing recharge and range standards for heavy machinery. These effectively explore “technology that can last as long as a tank of diesel and is as quick to fill”.

“This comes from the big drive in electric cars, with 80% of the global market committed to phasing out petrol and diesel motor cars by 2035,” Martin says. “As a result we’re concerned that diesel would become uneconomic in the future. It’s fairly long-term thinking.”

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There are alternatives such as John Deere’s electric-powered tractor in France, he says, but he doesn’t see that as a viable alternative. “If you need to sow and you’ve got the storm front coming you can’t be sitting around while your tractor is plugged into the wall.”

Something that would take 5-10 minutes to fill or charge and go for 12 hours would be ideal. “It’s about long-term industry viability and making sure we’ve still got a way to run our machinery.” 

Managing risk is a big part of this for growers. “They’re managing it as best they can, they’re not sitting on their hands,” says Martin. “They are the land managers. If you’re not looking after the land, it’s not going to look after you.”

When it comes to government action on drought and climate change, Lucinda believes, “There’s an appetite to work out how we deal with this, and how we deal with it more often and more efficiently.” 

Lucinda is the chair of Farmers for Climate Action which, in early September, joined the Australian Farm Institute at Parliament House in Canberra to push for a national strategy on climate change and agriculture. They delivered a report warning government officials that agricultural production and profits will fall significantly if a strategy is not put in place quickly. 

The Australian Farm Institute report cites research estimating future climate change could cause Australian production of wheat, beef, dairy and sugar to decline by 13-19% by 2050. 
 
Climate forecasts and how to adapt farm management practices
 

Farmer Ian McColl, who is calling for a national drought policy, in the sheep yards of his property in Koorawatha. 

Third-generation mixed farmer and NSW Farmers executive councillor Ian McColl of Koorawatha in the Riverina says, “We’ve been talking about putting drought measures in for decades. The reality is long-term strategies are put on hold.”

He says we need national drought policy now because it’s not just farmers it affects, it’s all of the community. “We need to plan for the drought before you go into a drought – you can’t do it when you’re in the middle of a drought.”

There’s so much politics involved, he says, it’s difficult to get a balanced view on anything in regards to climate change. 
 
“The majority recognise and accept there is a level of change. There are many different opinions as to why. I don’t think the majority of people are questioning the reason why, but rather how they manage it in the future."

“My ability to make a lot of changes will depend how I change my management,” says Ian, who produces prime lambs, wheat and canola and has focused on sowing grazing crops much earlier in March as the “seasons have become drier and tougher”. 

He’s created containment blocks for feeding lambs and ewes to maintain ground cover, finishes lambs through an on-farm feedlot and grows fodder crops, like wheat, peas and oats when possible or sources fodder locally, as a drought-proofing measure. 

It’s difficult to forecast on a national basis, as the scenarios are so different, he says. “A regional basis provides a much greater idea of what impact we can actually have and how we can deal with it on the on-farm level.” 
 
Farmers urge government to invest in long term policies for agriculture
 
Drought awareness campaigns have cropped up across the state, including the West is Waiting social media campaign launched in late September calling on farmers to hold a sign, #ScottMorrisonWhereAreYou as a plea for action on policy and long-term support from government. 


A post from the West is Waiting social media campaign, which calls on farmers to hold a sign reading #ScottMorrisonWhereAreYou. Source: @WestisWaiting

Their pleas, in the short term at least, have been answered with the Prime Minister announcing a further $100 million of drought funding, including $1 million payments to 13 additional local government areas to spend on water infrastructure upgrades, mental health support and other projects. There is however some concern about how exactly the money will be allocated.

In mid-October, the federal and NSW governments also pledged $1 billion for water storage, including  building the first new dam in NSW in 30 years at Dungowan near Tamworth, adding 10m to the wall of the Wyangala Dam, south-east of Cowra, and investigating a proposed 100,000 megalitre dam on the Mole River near Tenterfield. Construction is due to start next year and will take five years. 

NSW Farmers’ President James Jackson says dams can deliver a quadruple benefit. “They deliver a mechanism for storage of domestic and irrigation water but also in an uncertain future they are flood mitigation tools and a critical part of the energy solution with pumped hydro being a great battery for reliable energy,” he says. 

“Unfortunately, this announcement will do very little for those farmers who have no water for stock and are on very restricted domestic water use for drinking and washing.”

At the October NFF Member’s Council a National Drought Policy was agreed. Work on this document has taken some time and has included input from NSW Farmers and other State Farming Organisations as well as other member Peak Bodies/Councils. NSW Farmers considers this document to be a framework for further discussion and an overarching strategy to develop critical initiatives for in-drought and post-drought support. The NFF National Drought Policy can be accessed here.

Additionally the NFF has met with the Prime Minister and highlighted the need for additional in-drought support, including support to Local Councils and Shires to enable rate rebates, subsidising payroll expenses of farming businesses to maintain employment in regional areas, consider a 2 year interest free period for RIC loans, increase activity to eradicate feral pests, and additional support for the Rural Financial Counselling Services to work with farmers to enhance business resilience.
 
Pressure for global climate action rises

Pressure for commitment to climate action is being heard from across the globe, so how does Australia stack up? Scott Morrison did not attend the recent United Nations Climate Summit, and the nation has no new emissions targets beyond those announced at the 2015 Paris climate conference.



It will be interesting to see how this discussion of climate change plays out, says NSW Farmers’ Young Farmer Council chair Rachel Nicoll. “A lot of young farmers are watching from the sideline looking to see how leaders really position themselves on this.” 

Such an important topic invites a lot of emotive energy, Rachel says. 

“That’s where it’s about trying to find that balance between what is the science and what is the best way we can move forward together rather than by virtue of emotion or events that have happened in the past. How can we use those learning experiences and really move forward? I do appreciate older opinions, and those invite the comments that the climate has always been changing. It has.” 
 

Rachel on her family farm at Hampton in the NSW Central Tablelands with two Australorp chicks. Photography by David Roma. 

Rachel spoke at the UNICEF Australia NSW Youth Summit on Living with Drought in October to raise the agenda of agriculture on behalf of NSW Young Farmers. 

“From a young farmer point of view, my concern is that we may perhaps become overburdened by regulation or that there is an introduction of policy that actually creates a barrier for young farmers.” 
 
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It can all become overwhelming, she says, and she urges farmers to have conversations and connect with other people and groups such as the NSW Department of Primary Industries or NSW Farmers, who can assist in sharing information. 

“It is such an important conversation and it is going to be a long-lasting one.”  
 
“Farmers are in a position to do something about climate change”


Coonabarabran farmer Angus Atkinson with wife Anna and daughter Ella in Central West NSW. Photography by Jake Lindsay. 

As The Farmer went to press, Angus Atkinson was on tenterhooks. He’d just discovered the water level in a crucial bore had dropped 9m to the bottom of the pipe. “I was able to extend the pipe another 10m to the bottom of the bore but that’s it,” he says. “That’s very alarming.”

Angus had 75,000 litres of water in two tanks from the bore – enough to water his 100 cows on that farm for only seven days. “Hopefully extending the pipe will maintain what we pump but that’s just a hope,” he says. “If not we’ll have to shift them.”

It’s not the only bad news water-wise for the Coonabarabran farmer. He’s also seen a natural spring that was flowing at 2,000 litres an hour last year drop to less than 200 litres now.

Heavy rains in March ironically made the situation worse, reducing 4m-wide rock pools to 2m after they filled with silt from farms upstream that had been denuded.
 
“The way drought affects you is a function of your management – it’s really important people understand that,” Angus says. 

“I have dust blowing off my place but a lot of our country still has reasonable ground cover and that’s because we’ve de-stocked to about 35% of what we’d normally run.”

Angus is still buying in hay but has only three months of cottonseed left in storage. With prices hitting $650 a tonne he’s unlikely to buy more. He’s also early weaning his calves onto pellets at two months. “We never do that normally but we’ve had to because you can’t feed a lactating cow in my opinion.” 

He’s seen droughts in the past and has no doubt he’ll see droughts in the future. But while he admits he doesn’t know how much of the severity of this one is down to climate change, he points out that basic science says that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is going to have an effect. He illustrates that science with daughter Ella, burning a piece of paper then asking where it’s gone. 

“She says it’s disappeared but I explain you can’t destroy matter – it’s gone into the sky. Now if we’re burning tonnes of coal it’s not disappearing, it’s going into the sky. To say that’s not going to impact us is plainly ridiculous.”

What scientists can’t provide at the moment, he continues, is an exact timeline as to how climate change will impact. 

“They can only tell you the trajectory but if you think that’s going in the right direction, you should look again. 
 

Delivering cottonseed to his cows – Angus says he now has only three months of the feed left in storage (as of mid October).

Encouragingly, Angus believes farmers are in a position to “do something” and be one of the solutions to climate change. For instance he’d like to see incentives paid for maintaining ground cover, increasing carbon in soil and managing plantation forests and native vegetation. And he says if there is investment in cheap mass production of seaweed, every farmer would happily add it to feed to reduce methane production.

“Droughts will absolutely get more severe if we don’t do something,” says Angus. 

Despite the drought, Angus still feels agriculture is in a good place. Commodity prices are high and the cattle he’s sold have gone for about $1,000 each. He’s not making money but he can afford to feed what he has left. When it does rain he will take advantage of any re-stocking and replanting subsidies.

     “The population is growing. People want fancier food and we can provide it as long as we keep our green clean image. But there’s no doubt humans are impacting on climate and we should be doing more.”

The agriculture sector’s greenhouse emissions
 
  • 12.7% of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions

  • 22% globally

Sources: Australian Department of the Environment and Energy, IPCC report August 2019 

NSW Farmers’ climate change policy


The Corrigan’s RennyLea property in the Murray Valley, NSW.

2007 Policy passed by the Executive Council that, “Evidence now suggests that the climate is changing at a faster rate and has become more variable. As a sector highly exposed to changes in climate the Association believes the agricultural sector must take action to address changing climatic conditions and increased climate variability in order to maintain and increase its productive capacity.”

2015 Policy passed at NSW Farmers’ annual conference acknowledging the changing climate.

2016 Policy passed at the annual conference, “That NSW Farmers support re-instatement of the CSIRO’s funding for climate research.”

2017 Policy passed by the Executive Council that, “NSW Farmers participate in the federal government’s review of its climate policy, with principles that:
  • Landscape and agricultural emissions accounting inventory be combined to show the net carbon cycle of farming to acknowledge and compensate for agriculture’s significant contributions to emissions reductions.
  • Using ‘emissions intensity’ to provide efficient production system incentives.

8 ways farmers can act on climate change

  1. CREATE a plan and start with an emissions audit (energy, livestock).

  2. RESEARCH viable energy options: solar, battery, wind and electric.

  3. ADOPT sustainable pasture and livestock management systems.

  4. INVEST in more efficient water usage, including irrigation practices.

  5. TEST new technologies that help boost farming efficiencies.

  6. REDUCE methane, with measures including livestock feed alternatives and methane digesters.

  7. INNOVATE with carbon farming including sequestration, which improves soil health, boosts productivity and water holding.

  8. EXPLORE carbon credit opportunities through the Emissions Reductions Fund, such as planting trees.
Sources: Young Carbon Farmers, NSW Department of Primary Industries, Department of Agriculture, Climate Council, climatewatchdata.org, Australia’s emissions projections 2018

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