Case study - Scientists use farmers' knowledge to identify the settings for successful mixed farming

​Case study – Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, Australia’s Farming Future
Climate Change Research Program (CCRP)

Scientists use farmers’ knowledge to identify the settings for successful mixed farming

Farmers have an inherent ability to manage risk – and research scientists across Australia are harnessing this intelligence, and applying it to identify ways to better manage mixed farming systems in highly variable and changing climates.

Through the Australian Government’s Climate Change Research Program, researchers have received funding to work with 14 farmer groups across Australia to identify activities they believe would make them resilient to climate variability and change.

“The project was unique because we’re using the management options put forward by the farmers themselves,” project lead scientist, CSIRO’s Steven Crimp said.

At 35 sites across the Australian wheatbelt, researchers used a number of cropping and grazing models, to test farmers’ different management options such as fallowing, fertiliser use and changing cropping and stocking mixes.

“We used the various cropping and grazing models to develop baseline yields and profitability for each site based on current management. This information was validated with individual farmers and farming groups.  We then ran the models under future climate conditions to examine how the current farming system would fair. The model was used a second time under the future climate conditions but with modified management options.

“Yields, gross margins and other economic and environmental indicators were compared to give producers a clearer picture of what options may or may not work compared to their current management. Our simulation modelling allowed us to show the outcomes of changing certain management options without the risk associated with trialling these in real life.

“For example, one model estimated that for Australia's wheat industry in 2070 changing varieties and planting windows could  add approximately A$100m to A$550m to a mean farm gate value of $4.2b dollars under  current management practices.”

As well as developing practical strategies for farmers, the project assessed how vulnerable broadacre agriculture was to climate change and what was its capacity to adapt.

“In the past, lots of studies have looked primarily at the physical impacts of changes in temperature and rainfall and have claimed that the results are a measure of vulnerability.”

“But this isn’t an accurate depiction, as vulnerability is also the result of both social and economic factors like local infrastructure and education levels. It also doesn’t consider humans innate ability to adapt,” Steven Crimp said.

The researchers have developed a web-based vulnerability assessment tool that allowed farmers to assess their own adaptive capacity, along with vulnerability maps and indexes that showed areas that were vulnerable. The tool took in to account five capitals: social, physical, financial, natural and human. Under each of these were resources which may be available to farmers to improve their ability to adapt, such as education (human), soil fertility (natural) and infrastructure (physical).

Peter Hayman from the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI) worked with farmer groups in the lower rainfall zones of Eyre Peninsula and the Upper North region of South Australia.

The project used the state’s recent experience of prolonged drought as a starting point.

“Over the past decade we’ve had a run of very dry years, and we’ve used this as the basis for finding out how farmers have been responding at the farm and paddock levels,” Peter Hayman said.

“In our workshops we put the recent run of poor seasons in historical context and in context of future projections and then asked farmers to tell us what they have learnt about impacts and adaptation in terms of risk management.

“We then used specialised software to examine adaptation options at the paddock level and spreadsheet models to discuss impact and adaptation at the farm level.”

Mr Hayman made it clear there were no ‘magic bullet’ solutions.

“In a variable or changing climate, the options boil down to storing more water in the soil and using that water more efficiently,” he said.

South Australia’s Barry Mudge, who was a researcher on the project and a participating farmer, said the ability of the human brain to manage risk and make decisions has been developing for thousands of years.

“Farmers have a highly developed ability to deal with complex decisions,” he said. “We wanted to improve this ability by really nailing down the settings that make mixed farmers successful – drawing on the knowledge of farmers.”

Barry Mudge said the key settings that can tip the scales were the balance of the stock/crop ratio, the scale of the farm and its relationship to inputs, maintaining reasonable levels of equity, and the flexibility to respond to opportunity.

“You need to get the right balance between the needs of grazing and cropping,” he said. “The size of the farm needs to be large enough to justify the labour and machinery inputs, and having less than 70 per cent equity means your vulnerability to adverse circumstances like poor seasonal conditions and low prices are significantly increased.

“The final critical factor was the ability to capitalise on opportunity. For example, last year at sowing, we had a full soil profile of stored moisture. That’s very rare – it might have only happened six years in the past 30. The critical thing was to be in a position to capitalise on that opportunity. I sowed the entire farm rather than the half I normally do, and even though we had below average growing season rainfall, the crop yields were very good.

 “It’s not new – the farms that have survived for generations are the ones that have these settings right. But this work helped build the ability of farmers to survive in an uncertain future.

“Working with farmers to tweak these settings and look at the results helped empower them and built confidence in their capacity to adapt to challenging circumstances.

“We don’t know what’s coming in terms of climate change – the science isn’t precise enough at this stage – but using the simulations we can look at extremes and assess the practicalities of how different adaptations might play out,” Peter Hayman said.

The multi-agency research project was run by the CSIRO, with research from state agencies in QLD, NSW, VIC, SA, TAS and WA, farmer groups such as The Birchip Cropping Group (BCG) and PlanFarm, and a host of contributing production groups around the country. Funding was made available through the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, the Grains Research and Development Corporation and CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship.