Inspired by drought

Mervyn Mayes
Wandoan QLD

Seeing first hand the outcome poor management decisions from his work on the local drought committee led grazier Mervyn Mayes to lay his hands on as much climate information as possible for his own property.

‘Windermere’ is a 2680 hectare three-property family partnership between Mervyn, his wife, their two married sons and their wives. They run a beef cattle breeding, trading and fattening enterprise at Wandoan, in a 650mm rainfall area in south east Queensland.

‘Being on the Drought Committee meant I had to inspect individual properties that had applied to be drought declared’ said Mervyn. ‘It allowed me to see first hand what other producers were doing and the management decisions they were making and I saw which ones didn’t work!

‘I realised that lots of problems come from making decisions after the event. If you’re always reacting, then you are often making decisions out of desperation.’

Mervyn jumped at the opportunity to attend a ‘Managing for the Climate’ workshop run by the QLD Centre for Climate Applications (QCCA).

‘I’ve always been interested in climate, and the workshop gave me a real appreciation of how to interpret climate and some ways to handle it.’

Mervyn now draws on a range of climate tools and information including one hundred years of local rainfall charts, sea surface temperatures (from the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Timor Sea), Weather by Fax, cloud charts and Seasonal Conditions Reports from the QLD Department of Primary Industries. The development of a local hub to allow cheap Internet access in a few months will widen the range even further.

‘From all of these I try to form an opinion of what the season ahead will do’ said Mervyn. ‘We always use them only as an aid, to reinforce a decision that we are already part way towards making.

‘At the moment I estimate there is around 60-65% reliability in the information we get. I certainly wouldn’t take a management decision on current climate information alone.

‘Three months ago we had to make a decision about some store condition bullocks. The QCCA was forecasting a positive rainfall pattern for the winter, but some of the indicators that I saw, for instance the slight cooling in sea surface temperature to the east of Australia and the SOI tending to get down into the negative, made me a bit more cautious than the forecasts.

‘We had no fodder crop in the ground, so weighing up the factors we decided to feedlot them in a commercial feedlot before extreme demand developed. We’ve just sold those cattle at the top of the market, so that one decision has been very worthwhile.

‘In June 1998 rainfall was average, pasture growth was above average, forecasts for rainfall and pasture growth were favourable and the SOI was rapidly rising. Using these indicators we purchased 291kg store condition dry cows for 49.8c a kilogram and sold these animals in October weighing 393kg for 81c a kilogram.

‘We are also able to assess forage requirements well ahead of time and adjust cultivation areas and purchase seed requirements head of peak demand’ said Mervyn. ‘Though sometimes the wheels do fall off.

‘Using climate information I decided to plant increased quantities of oats to finish the cattle. In anticipation of slightly above average rainfall through the winter I bought quite a lot of oat seed in January. I hedged my bets by buying early and cheaply, at 15c a kilogram.

‘I was anticipating a wetter winter, but unfortunately it was never wet enough to plant! It wasn’t a total loss. I’d bought the seed cheaply because it was out of season and it will hold over till I can use it.

‘In the normal course of events I could have crashed badly because I would have purchased seed close to when I thought I needed it and the price was then closer to 75c a kilogram.’

Mervyn believes that one of the most valuable outcomes is an improvement in the way pastures are managed.

‘The old way was to use your grass asset to your best ability and when it was gone then you started worrying’ said Mervyn.

‘Now we look at using the asset more sustainably and not damaging it. We use “Grasscheck” monitoring of pasture yield and composition and this is showing an increase in desirable pasture species because of careful stocking rates set by the use of climate forecasting information.

‘We use “Grassman” decision support software in conjunction with rainfall forecasting to carry out new pasture plantings at the best time.’

Mervyn is an active landcare member and also involved with the Western Downs Beef Plan Group. He believes that many farmers can gain substantial support from government departments and research institutions to help them with new ideas and techniques.

‘If you’re prepared to put yourself out a little, there’s a whole range of people who will assist. Our Beef Plan Group has just offered itself as a guinea pig to the QCCA, which is developing a beef module for specialist advice.

‘Lots of government departments are willing to trial products for producer groups and you can get some good resources, as well as stretching yourself mentally.’

‘Using climate information and other new management tools is part of an evolving process for producers. The margins are so small these days that we simply can’t afford to make bad decisions.’

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