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Journal article

Sustainable management for rangelands in a variable climate: evidence and insights from northern Australia

1 Jan 2013

Inter-annual rainfall variability is a major challenge to sustainable and productive grazing management on rangelands. In Australia, rainfall variability is particularly pronounced and failure to manage appropriately leads to major economic loss and environmental degradation. Recommended strategies to manage sustainably include stocking at long-term carrying capacity (LTCC) or varying stock numbers with forage availability. These strategies are conceptually simple but difficult to implement, given the scale and spatial heterogeneity of grazing properties and the uncertainty of the climate. This paper presents learnings and insights from northern Australia gained from research and modelling on managing for rainfall variability. A method to objectively estimate LTCC in large, heterogeneous paddocks is discussed, and guidelines and tools to tactically adjust stocking rates are presented. The possible use of seasonal climate forecasts (SCF) in management is also considered. Results from a 13-year grazing trial in Queensland show that constant stocking at LTCC was far more profitable and largely maintained land condition compared with heavy stocking (HSR). Variable stocking (VAR) with or without the use of SCF was marginally more profitable, but income variability was greater and land condition poorer than constant stocking at LTCC. Two commercial scale trials in the Northern Territory with breeder cows highlighted the practical difficulties of variable stocking and provided evidence that heavier pasture utilisation rates depress reproductive performance. Simulation modelling across a range of regions in northern Australia also showed a decline in resource condition and profitability under heavy stocking rates. Modelling further suggested that the relative value of variable v. constant stocking depends on stocking rate and land condition. Importantly, variable stocking may possibly allow slightly higher stocking rates without pasture degradation. Enterprise-level simulations run for breeder herds nevertheless show that poor economic performance can occur under constant stocking and even under variable stocking in some circumstances. Modelling and research results both suggest that a form of constrained flexible stocking should be applied to manage for climate variability. Active adaptive management and research will be required as future climate changes make managing for rainfall variability increasingly challenging.

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