Using Seasonal Forecast Information and Tools

The Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC) is a statutory corporation established under the Primary Industries Research and Development Act 1989. It is subject to accountability and reporting obligations set out in the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013. It is responsible for planning, investing in and overseeing research and development, and delivering improvements in production, sustainability and profitability across the Australian grains industry. Climate remains the single most important driver of farm productivity and profitability. While it is important that growers and advisors take a strategic approach and have robust farming systems that allow them to manage our variable climate, there may be an opportunity for more appropriate use of seasonal climate forecast information to inform tactical decisions by limiting downside risk and maximising upside opportunity. The skill and accuracy of forecasts continue to improve and the Bureau of Meteorology plan to release 2 to 8 week weather forecast in the near future which have the potential to significantly improve tactical decisions such as fertiliser and crop protection applications and develop strategic operational plans. Furthermore, there is an opportunity for the grains industry to collaborate with the Bureau to test experimental products and influence the design and function of new products. It is essential to recognise that the skill of seasonal forecasts varies throughout the season and across regions. Even at locations and times of the year where the skill is high (e.g. spring period in southern Australian) forecasts are never perfect and are best represented as a shift in probabilities of the season being wetter or drier, and warmer or cooler than average. Despite recent improvements, the relatively low skill of seasonal climate forecasts means that many growers and advisors believe they are unreliable and of limited value. Nevertheless, recent 2015 and 2016 seasons demonstrated that a seasonal forecast is often “too good to ignore but not good enough to rely upon”. At present seasonal forecasts are mainly used for in-crop nitrogen fertiliser decisions which generally provide a modest level of value. Identifying the value proposition of seasonal forecasts for more complex decisions, such as enterprise mix and crop selection is still the major challenge given that the implications of getting it wrong could have significant consequences for farm profit. Growers and advisors want to know what information is useful and when the seasonal forecast is reliable. A greater emphasis on the skill of information contained in a seasonal forecast is required as opposed to a commentary on the drivers of climate. For example, it is important that growers and advisors recognise that the accuracy of autumn-early winter predictions are usually low, and not to over-react to forecasts during this period. Understanding the probabilities of rainfall and temperatures (i.e. very much below, below, average, above or very much above average) is essential to use seasonal forecasts to effectively inform farm decisions. Identifying any past years which are similar to the forecast outlook can provide users with a reference to understand the likely outcomes based on past experiences and learnings. However, it is recognised that for some forecasts it is either not possible or too simplistic to identify previous years which are similar. In addition to weather forecasts, measurable or predictable factors such as soil moisture or agronomic constraints are a major consideration for growers and advisors. A functional tool that provides a summary forecast and “expert” interpretation of rainfall and temperature outlook and the impact on soil moisture and other relevant information would provide growers and advisors with a practical resource to make better informed decisions. Delivering customised and targeted information rather than prescriptive advice would allow growers and advisors to make decisions based on their individual situations, past experience and personal attitude to risk. Where possible, locally relevant ‘rules of thumb’ would assist users to use forecast information more effectively. Agriculture Victoria has developed ‘The Break’ email (and videos) which is widely recognised as a practical communication that incorporates much of the content described above and is distributed to a large number of farmers and stakeholders in Victoria. A similar communication is needed for other areas across the Southern Region.

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