Feature article

Livestock farmers cope with climate variability

Debris caused extensive damage to farm fences during a recent North Island east coast flood.

The climate of the Gisborne district is highly variable and frequently poses severe risks to livestock farming. El Niño seasons are typically dry, and La Niña seasons are often wet. Global warming and the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation add further dimensions to the variability.

The vulnerability of farmers to climate variability and season-changing weather events has led to the evolution of numerous coping strategies.

Survey

AgResearch and NIWA recently surveyed representative groups of farmers in the Gisborne district. Discussions focused on the climate extremes experienced since the early 1980s and farmers' coping strategies.

The two major extremes of the period were the drought of 1982-83, and Cyclone Bola in March 1988. There were eight dry seasons and three when floods occurred.

The farmers described the following coping strategies that they developed in response to these events.

  • More flexible stocking strategies
  • Earlier lambing, to allow for timely decisions on destocking
  • Improved subdivision of paddocks, focusing on the most reliable water supplies
  • Use of drought resistant pasture species
  • Strategies that prevent paddock over-grazing
  • More dams in paddocks, and water systems installed on flats
  • Well planned animal health and production systems, and detailed monitoring of pests and diseases
  • More regular use of climate forecasts

While climate forecasts did not predict the timing of floods and droughts, they were useful scene-setters that helped farmers to plan contingencies for both typical and unexpected weather conditions.

Strengthening resilience

The introduction of the above strategies in livestock management shows the determination of farmers to cope with climate extremes and trends. By developing a range of response options that have proven effective during the kinds of events that have occurred over the past two decades, stocking systems have become more flexible and durable. These coping strategies have strengthened farming resilience, and will reduce vulnerability to future climate variations.

For more information email the National Climate Centre at [email protected]


Acknowledgment: This work was funded by the New Zealand Foundation for Research, Science & Technology.