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Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Taking a timely approach to managing climate

The North East Catchment Management Authority is undertaking a number of case studies, demonstrating how leading farmers from North East Victoria are managing the risks associated with climate change. The Embedding Climate Adaptation in Agriculture project is working with the region’s farmers to determine how the use of climate projections supports their farm management. This project is supported by North East Catchment Management Authority, through funding from the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program.

Rosewhite commercial beef producer Jane Carney says whether they recognise it or not, more farmers are adapting to a changing climate, supported by greater opportunities to increase their knowledge and improve their skills.

“They are adapting to drier seasons; they are adapting to water quality issues,” Mrs Carney said.

“Increased knowledge supports on-farm decisions. It’s very easy some years to say I can’t afford to make these decisions but then really you can’t afford not to do it.

“When you’ve got debt and you don’t have a lot of other external income sources, then every decision you’re going to make is going to impact on your bottom line and your ability to remain economically viable.

“At the same time, it’s an investment every time you do something on your farm and it needs to be an investment that is going to give you a return over longer than a year.”

Jane and Peter Carney run their small beef operation over two properties – almost 300ha at Rosewhite and 126ha at Greta West. They calve about 230 angus cows in early July at Rosewhite, weaning the calves in March-April and sending the weaners to Greta West in May.

The couple bought Greta West in 2014, aiming to switch their operation from autumn to spring calving and have the flexibility to hold their heifers and steers rather than sell them on a poorer autumn market. The warmer winters at Greta have given them the opportunity to finish their cattle more quickly before they are sold to the feedlot or over the hooks.

“We wean around 9 to 10 months and aim to send the feedlot cattle in late September at 14-15 months, averaging 450kg; and by November we sell the heaviest ones over the hooks direct, which by then average 560kg and are slightly older, 16 to 17 months,” Mrs Carney said.

Switching to spring calving wasn’t easy and even now, Mrs Carney admits it’s a decision she continues to struggle with, particularly since there have been fewer cold, wet winters in recent years and drier springs.

Conditions at Rosewhite can run to extremes. While recent winters have been mild, supporting good pasture growth throughout the cooler months, as recently as 2015 it was wet and cold with severe frosts. There was no growth on the clay soils and the cattle did poorly.

A bushfire burnt out the property in 2009, destroying the Carneys’ fences and tree plantations. It was followed soon after by torrential rain that carried enormous amounts of granite down from the surrounding fire-ravaged hills, scouring the Jackson and Happy Valley Creeks and causing significant erosion damage that hasn’t yet been resolved.

“There are a lot of willows on these creeks. We started to clear them but the speed of the water flow has increased and I’m not sure if it is now causing more problems than it did before,” Mrs Carney said.

There are signs of recovery however, from not only the bushfire, but also from the intensive irrigated dairy farming that had taken place on the property before the Carneys arrived in 2003. The morning we speak, Mrs Carney had seen her first platypus in Jacksons Creek; an endorsement of practises that include rotational grazing, careful fertiliser usage and the retention of good ground covers to minimise run-off.

Mrs Carney developed a passion for cattle genetics growing up on a beef stud at Finley in the NSW Murray Valley. Her interest in climate mitigation practices and environment management emerged while working with her husband Peter and his family on their two US ranches in Wyoming and Arizona before they returned to Australia in 2003.

In the years since her return to Australia, Mrs Carney has become a member of Farmers for Climate Action and completed their intensive three-day fellowship, working with specialist scientists and researchers from Agriculture Victoria, Melbourne University and the Bureau of Meteorology

“There’s a lot of great science being done around mitigation,” she said.

“For the moment we are concentrating on producing high quality feed and higher performing animals to minimise our carbon footprint.”

Aiming to build productivity, Mrs Carney joined the Better Beef Group with other Mudgegonga and Murmungee farmers. She looks to Agriculture Victoria for monthly and quarterly climate forecasts, as well as rural media and the Bureau of Meteorology for other climate information and projections. She has also become very active in landcare, enthusiastic to support sustainable farming practices and increased biodiversity.

Mrs Carney has been part of a North East CMA Soils Health program and is involved in breeding spring active dung beetles through the Ovens Landcare Network. 

“The soils health project is looks at soil acidity which is a major problem around here. But if we build soil organic matter and soil biodiversity which will ultimately lead to deeper soil carbon profiles, I think we will resolve a lot of those issues.

“And at the same time, your moisture retention is so much better. You’re just building a much more resilient environment around you. And then with your shade and shelter belts, yes that’s great for the livestock.

“After the fires we started to look more closely at our soils. We had depleted our phosphorus levels so we thought we needed to build it up again. It’s hard to build phosphorus in these soil types so we really struggled and were putting on single super in quite high quantities and I just wasn’t liking what I was seeing. It was just not giving us the productivity that I felt we should be getting and we developed some nutritional issues.”

The Carneys sought further agronomy advice and switched to a slower release fertiliser blend. The tailor-made product is more expensive but the results have been “fantastic”.

“Our soils are more balanced, our productivity has increased and animal health has improved,” Mrs Carney said.

“We’ve probably gone a lot harder than some people. We’ve had some good years and we’ve just invested in our soils.”

The challenge now for the Carneys is undertaking the improvements they can afford to refine a cattle operation that requires fewer hours to run.

Ongoing plans are to further divide up their pastures and make paddocks smaller, but that requires more fencing, shade and shelter belts; as well as the installation of water troughs and reticulated water on both properties. Reticulated water and troughs will also protect water quality in dams that aren’t directly accessed by cattle.

“I know we need to do some aeration on this farm (Rosewhite). Because of the heavy clay soils, high rainfall and livestock impact we’ve ended up with a shallow hard pan underneath.

“It’s probably not particularly bad but it’s just enough to deter some grass roots from going deeper into the soil profile.

“We plan to do some multi species cropping as a means of increasing organic carbon in the soil and improving aeration. Growing plants with more vigorous and deeper root growth should naturally aerate the soil.

“There is no one quick fix, by utilising a number of different management options such as our rotational grazing program to give longer paddock rest times and the promotion of dung beetle activity, we hope to get continued improvement."

“There’s a balance between making short term decisions to remain economically viable and making long term decisions.

“It’s a multi-pronged, holistic approach that we are taking.”

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