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Uncertainty and heavy precipitation: the impact of an uncommon El Niño on Australian agriculture.
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Uncertainty and heavy precipitation: the impact of an uncommon El Niño on Australian agriculture.


The initial sheep auction of the year in Cowra saw an increase in prices, as the animals appeared to be in better spirits due to recent heavy rainfall. In the first 11 days of January, the area received over 80mm of rain, coming close to breaking the monthly record. This has helped to alleviate the progression towards drought in the central tablelands of New South Wales.

As dense clouds move across the saleyard, high-quality lambs are being purchased for as much as $240 each – a significant increase of over $100 from the previous month before the arrival of rain. In the final sales of 2023, low-quality lambs were being sold for as little as $11 each. This was a loss that some farmers were willing to endure, considering the announcement of an El Niño weather pattern and the rising number of areas experiencing drought. No one wanted to be unprepared.

Farmer Doug Wright divided his group of animals, selling a portion before the holiday season and the remainder after it rained. This risk proved successful, as his sales of lambs later on resulted in an additional profit of $25 per animal.

“It’s always a game, and at times, there’s no discernible pattern,” he states.

“People tend to make excuses when the forecast is incorrect, but they rarely admit when they are wrong. This is a common human behavior, as most people are not fully aware of the unpredictability of rainfall.”

After 44 years of farming, Wright has come to understand the importance of not depending too much on predictions.

During a period of rain, it is difficult to anticipate the quantity, as the weather pattern is constantly fluctuating. According to the speaker, there is a possibility that we may experience another dry period, causing a shift in the overall weather pattern.

Transformations occur regularly in the agricultural process, however, according to Seth Westra, an expert in water and weather risks at the University of Adelaide, improved communication and comprehension of risk could enhance the ability to adapt to fluctuating weather patterns.

According to him, humans often struggle with understanding probabilities, especially when faced with uncertain situations. This applies not only to climate change, but to any scenario with uncertain outcomes.

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According to Westra, the Bureau of Meteorology’s precise messaging about the impact of the El Niño climate pattern on a potentially drier and hotter year was often misunderstood as a definite prediction of drought. However, Westra clarifies that while there is an increased likelihood of drought, there is still a chance for above-average precipitation, as evidenced by recent weather patterns this summer.

According to him, adhering to the guidance will typically result in being ahead. However, there may be instances where this is not the case. This is when attempting to mitigate potential risks becomes essential in effective management.

Not every farm can diversify. Smaller farms and those with specialised production have to make tough decisions with the information at hand. In Victoria’s King Valley, grape growers who prepared their vines with lush, leafy canopies to shade against hot temperatures are now facing fungal growth and mould, after flooding rains heralded the new year.

Dean Cleave-Smith, the president of the Wines of the King Valley association, expresses concerns about the increasing difficulty in ensuring a successful harvest.

In late October, we received official information about El Niño and prepared for a hot and dry season. The speaker has a general understanding of the upcoming week’s weather, but cannot accurately predict the following month as previous forecasts have been incorrect.

Certain farmers are considering the option of expanding their land by cultivating more Prosecco grapes, following Australia’s triumph in resolving a disagreement with the European Union over naming rights. However, the ever-changing climate has amplified the potential financial hazards.

According to Cleave-Smith, there has been a significant rise in the uncertainty of medium-term predictions. While long-term forecasts have always carried some level of risk, three-month forecasts were previously considered more reliable. However, in the past few years, there has been a noticeable increase in the volatility of these predictions.

According to Peter Steele, an agribusiness specialist at the National Australia Bank, the erratic weather conditions have led some farmers to adopt a cautious strategy.

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The agriculture industry in Australia is strong and experienced in adjusting to varying circumstances, according to the speaker. While certain customers may encounter difficulties such as production problems or unexpected financial obstacles, it is crucial for them to maintain close communication with their bank and other trusted advisors.

Steele states that the bank is actively observing the current economic and seasonal factors in order to mitigate any potential risks.

According to a representative from the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM), their forecasts are among the most accurate in the world. They use probabilistic forecasting to show the chances of experiencing above or below average conditions, as well as the likelihood of extreme weather events.

They state that weather predictions have a natural element of uncertainty, which can occasionally lead to deviations from the actual weather. They also mention that climate change plays a role in the frequency, scope, and effects of various extreme weather and climate occurrences.

They stated that the consequences of the climate emergency on prediction were a major worry.

In the future, there will be changes in climate variability due to a rise in both deep ocean and sea surface temperatures. This is something that has not been observed in the past.

The Minister of Agriculture in NSW, Tara Moriarty, has stated that the state government offers initiatives to address changes in climate and offer additional assistance to farmers.

She explains that on-site guidance is available to farmers through the Drought Adoption officers who work throughout the state. These officers offer personalized advice, along with other local land services and experts in natural capital.

The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries is continuing to implement programs to combat drought. The most recent drought indicator for NSW reveals that the drought is still worsening in over half of the state, following the declaration of 2023 as the hottest year on record. According to the department’s three-month outlook, there is a range of forecasts, including the possibility of instability in weekly forecasts.

Wright was not surprised when his property received 10mm of rain during the Cowra sales in the afternoon, even though there was no indication of it on the radar.

“He mentioned that we have had a damp start to the year and we will have to wait and see what unfolds in the future.”

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Source: theguardian.com