WEATHER extremes such as heavy rainfall and extreme heat are a challenge for any farmer, but with such events tipped to become increasingly frequent and their duration prolonged under official climate change scenarios, Gippsland farmers bear the brunt of these extreme weather effects.
Angus Zilm is an owner-operator of a grass-fed beef farming business in Gippsland, with a long family farming connection in the region.
Having managed his business across multiple properties around Stratford and Sale for the past 10 years, the local beef producer strongly attests to the increasing climate extremes.
“We own a property on the Latrobe River near Sale, and for the last so many years, we have had no problem using the river flat country, but just recently, in the last two years, we have just been hounded with floods,” Mr Zilm said.
“In my experience, these events have become more extreme. I think, the droughts in America and China that we’re seeing and at the same time in Australia we are being hounded by floods; it’s got to be a trend.
“There has got to be a correlation between the two as we come out of drought; they’re going into drought.
“So as farmers, we are trying to prepare for more extremes, more drought, more flood, more heavy rain, stronger winds, all those sorts of different things.”
Like many other local farmers, Mr Zilm has had to adapt to the persistent weather extremes in order to survive.
“We were predominately farming dry land for the first few years, and we couldn’t do it,” Mr Zilm said.
“We needed irrigation to support our business to give us that reliability of being able to grow grass, so we sought out irrigation land as a primary backbone of our business.
“Since that, we have strategically sought to acquire land with undulation and different topography as well as environmental benefits – so shade, a shelter for cattle, hills to prevent flooding, open country as well as low country.”
Mr Zilm said that way, “we do get the benefit in a dry season that we get some river country, but also that it has the high country to get the cattle and livestock away from those river flats when it does flood”.
“It definitely wasn’t something that was a priority; it wasn’t something that was at the forefront of our minds that we were incrementally going to have to look for different properties, or property, with all these attributes; it was like people have been farming this way forever, why can’t we continue to farm this way,” he said.
“Now it’s more like survival, adapt and survive or don’t survive. The adapting part is simply us saying ‘We are going to look to have all these bolt-ons and diversity within the business’; that way, we can survive when we go into drought or floods or whatever conditions arise.”
Local beekeepers, Amrita and Andrew Bradley, are also among Gippsland farmers affected by the increasingly frequent weather extremes.
“The seasons have changed, there is no doubt,” Ms Bradley said.
“Summer seems to be shorter and wetter, and there is a lot of extra rain around and humidity.
“How that affects honey production is, when we collect honey, we encourage the bees to build up what they need, but then we also manipulate them, in a nice way, to make extra honey, and we take the extra. We always have to leave enough honey for the bees, or else they will die basically.”
With the current weather, Ms Bradley said there was not a lot of extra honey. “They are only just making enough for themselves to survive,” she said.
“To give you an example, last year, last honey season, we calculated we would get about 500 kilos of honey from our hives; we got about 152 at a stretch.”
Large percentages of pollen are washed away, with increased rainfall leaving minuscule amounts remaining on flowers for the bees to forage, resulting in decreased honey production.
“When we go to the hives, we know the honey is ready because the bees have capped it; when the bees have the got the water and the sugar content of the honey right, they put a wax layer over it, that’s called a cap,” Ms Bradley said.
“With the humidity, they aren’t capping it because they can’t get the sugar and water right, they aren’t capping it.
“They aren’t capping it; we can’t take it. So that is what is happening with us from an environmental point of view.
“There is no doubt that things are changing; just by looking around and seeing either the trees blossoming early, the plants and the weeds that come up at certain times of the year, that is all changing.”
Victoria’s year-to-date rainfall total for January to November was around 829 millimetres, 35 per cent above average and the highest since 1974, with the state documenting the highest spring rainfall on record and maximum temperatures the sixth-lowest on record and lowest since 1992.
During La Niña events in 2021-22, eastern Australia experienced one of its most significant flood periods ever observed.
For the Windsong Farm Providore beekeepers, the increased weather extremes, warranting unprecedented rainfall, and slowing down honey production have undoubtedly affected their business.
“There are a lot of local businesses wanting to support, stock and supply local honey, and we can’t meet demand,” Ms Bradley said.
“We have had to diversify into other products and modify our business to survive.”
The CSIRO and Bureau of Meteorology recent biannual State of the Climate report drew on the latest climate monitoring, science and projection information to detail Australia’s current and future changing climate.
The report showed that heavy rainfall events are becoming more intense, with the number of short-duration heavy rainfall events expected to increase.
The director of CSIRO’s Climate Science Centre, Dr Jaci Brown, said the report documented the continuing acidification of the oceans around Australia, which have also warmed by more than one degree since 1900.
“The concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are continuing to rise, and this is causing Australia’s climate to warm,” Dr Brown said.
“The warming of our oceans is contributing to longer and more frequent marine heatwaves, and this trend is expected to continue into the future.
“The rate of sea level rise varies around Australia’s coastlines, but the north and south-east have experienced the most significant increases.”
The Bureau of Meteorology’s manager of climate environmental prediction services, Dr Karl Braganza, said the report projected increases in air temperatures, more heat extremes and fewer cold extremes in coming decades.
“Australia’s climate has warmed on average by 1.47 degrees since 1910,” he said.
Dr Braganza said the length of fire seasons had increased across the country in recent decades, with longer fire seasons in the south and east expected in the future and an increase in the number of dangerous fire weather days.