How we deal with El Nino

How we deal with El Nino

We’ve been hearing many reports about the Godzilla El Nino that’s hit us this season. In fact, we don’t need to turn on the radio or TV to know that we’re in the middle of a very difficult season. A look outside at the dried-off paddocks and the cloudless sky tells us everything we need to know.

Dam very low
Dam very low

But what is an El Nino?

It’s a disruptive weather pattern caused by shifting winds, which trigger a rise in surface sea temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. The destructive effects are felt in the US, but also Australia and Southeast Asia. The last El Nino event in 2010 triggered monsoons in Southeast Asia, heat waves in Brazil and deadly floods in Mexico. The increased rainfall also ended a drought in California, something that would be very welcome this time around as well.

See http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4773
See http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=4773

In Southern Australia, the important results of an El Nino event (for farmers at least) are extremely low Spring rainfalls, followed by higher than average Summer rainfalls. Of course, there is nothing we can do to change the course of an El Nino event, but we can be prepared and modify our farming practice to limit the ill effects.

The first thing we can do is to monitor long-range weather forecasts and be in touch with different agencies’ predictions regarding El Nino patterns. For example, the current El Nino was declared in May rather than June or July which is when they usually set in. This tells meteorologists that it is likely to be an intense event. Forewarned is forearmed, and knowing what is likely to happen with the weather means that we can make some decisions early.

Low Spring rainfalls means greatly reduced pasture for our animals. If we can’t grow enough to feed them, we have to rely on hay. Cutting our own hay is an option, but if this hasn’t happened, we’re forced to buy it in. Of course, everyone else is experiencing the same weather conditions as us, so the economics of supply and demand mean that hay is very expensive. It seems obvious, but the simplest way around this is to have fewer animals consuming pasture and hay. Knowing that we will not have any significant Spring rain, we decrease the number of animals on our farm wherever possible.

Rolling the feeder...
Rolling the feeder…

Another strategy we are exploring and implementing involves the use of native pasture, which comes up at different times of year. As we are trying to increase the Summer-active native pasture on our properties, an El Nino event is in some ways a blessing. Consider this: The Spring pasture is very weak due to the season, and by the time Summer rolls around (hopefully with increased rainfall as is the usual El Nino pattern), our Summer-active native pastures are just starting to get going. They won’t have too much competition, so should really thrive. The healthier and more dominant these grasses are, the more chance they have of spreading their seed to add to the reserves in the soil. This means that next year, we will have far greater diversity in our pasture.

Ryelands and kangaroo grass (themeda)
Ryelands and kangaroo grass (themeda)

Farmers have a reputation for doggedly doing the same thing, year in, year out. But there are exciting new (or old?) ideas and practices and swirling around. We’re thrilled to be able to access ancient and cutting edge knowledge to improve our farming.