Drought Resilience Strategies for Farmers in South Australia

Since the introduction of the National Drought Policy (NDP) in 1992, self-reliance has been promoted in farm operators as a way to manage climate variability (Productivity Commission 2009). However, this does not necessarily translate into proactive decision-making prior to drought events.

Farmers approach RFCS during drought periods, and staff report spending much of their time helping clients fill out forms for government assistance. This may be an opportunity to promote a more proactive model of assistance.

1. Invest in a Water Management Plan

Water Management Plans are a critical tool for managing drought. They include detailed, long-term strategies for addressing local water supply, infrastructure, demand management projects, and climate change impacts to local and regional water resources. A successful plan will include a wide variety of stakeholders, including local and regional governments, water utilities, community groups, private developers, and agricultural producers. These plans will address local and regional issues of concern, including land use planning, regional water supply, and infrastructure development. The Bureau of Reclamation is committed to supporting the development of comprehensive water management plans that are resilient, reliable and fiscally responsible to meet local and statewide needs.

A drought-stressed world is facing a water crisis that threatens crops, livestock and people in many countries. Water scarcity has already affected nearly half of all cities and three-fourths of irrigated farmland, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Low water flows also reduce the capacity of hydropower dams, causing price spikes and power outages. They may even choke out fish populations and dry up rivers, as has happened in the Murray-Darling Basin.

Farmers in the area will need to adjust their cropping decisions to account for the new water conditions and the availability of alternative water sources. For example, in areas where irrigation water is limited, wheat harvests offer greater net returns per acre-foot than other valley crops. However, grower decision-making must emphasize overall profitability to maintain a viable farming business and balance the risk of limiting water availability.

WSIPs are designed to make the most of scarce water supplies and improve ecosystem services in water-limited environments. The approach is flexible and varies by region, depending on local environmental and socioeconomic circumstances. However, despite their many benefits, WSIPs face challenges, including a lack of evidence on return on investment and the need to demonstrate resilience against future droughts.

While ecological infrastructure investments can have substantial impacts, their success depends on a holistic approach that includes reintroducing native species, conducting prescribed burns, and implementing restoration activities. This is because fire-adapted ecosystems have complex interconnected processes, such as seedbank dynamics, native plant re-establishment, and abiotic thresholds. Consequently, one ecological infrastructure intervention (e.g. alien clearing) applied without considering the entire system is likely to fail.

2. Invest in an Irrigation System

Investing in irrigation systems will allow farmers to grow more crops and increase profits throughout the year. The system will also help them during drought periods.

In addition to investing in irrigation systems, farmers should make sure that they have a drought preparedness plan. This is important because droughts can have a negative impact on both rural economies and food security. Having a drought preparedness plan will allow farmers to minimize the effects of drought and reduce their vulnerability to future droughts.

A drought preparation plan should include a list of key decisions that need to be made when drought conditions occur. This will allow farmers to avoid making panicked decisions under stress. It will also allow them to take the time to consider their options carefully and choose the best solution for their situation. Developing a drought management plan is best done when the weather is good, so farmers can decide what they need to do ahead of time.

Generally speaking, smart operators will use a combination of strategies to manage their businesses and finances during droughts. These strategies may include reducing debt, increasing income from off-farm sources, and creating more resilient farm infrastructure. In addition to this, many operators will put money aside during high farming returns in order to prepare for a dry period.

Farmers can also benefit from having access to reliable information about upcoming droughts. They need to be able to act quickly and decisively when a drought occurs, but they also need to be able to weigh up their options and the costs of their actions. A research study found that farmers who were reactive in their decision-making during droughts were unable to make the best choices for their business. Moreover, it was found that low-performing farm operators had reduced capacity to make critical drought preparedness decisions due to emotional distress and uncertainty.

Currently, the Australian and SA governments are working together to develop regional drought resilience planning programs. These plans will focus on agriculture and allied industries in the Murraylands/Riverland, Yorke Peninsula/Mid North and Far North/Outback regions of South Australia. The program is part of the Australian Government’s $5 billion Future Drought Fund.

3. Make a Drought Preparedness Plan

There are a range of activities that farmers take to adapt their operations during drought periods. These include investing in property improvements such as dams, water tanks, silos and fodder sheds, restocking their enterprises with cattle or sheep, and increasing their cropping rotation. Some also take on off-farm work and engage in business diversification. Many also save a significant amount of their farming income during good times to allow them to make necessary investments during drought.

However, there are a number of barriers that prevent many farmers from taking advantage of the opportunities provided by drought conditions. For example, a lack of business management skills was reported by lower performing farmers to be a significant barrier to increasing their drought preparedness. This is particularly true for smaller-sized operators.

The ability to access and understand climatic information was another important factor that influences how well operators are able to cope and adapt during droughts. Low literacy rates were also found to have a significant impact on this. This is partly because illiterate farmers are less likely to use a range of drought risk-management activities such as preparing contingency plans, purchasing feed and agisting stock, or reducing their livestock carrying capacity.

These results suggest that there is a need for more proactive drought assistance programs, such as FbF, to provide farmers with the support they need to reduce their vulnerability. However, there are concerns that direct producer support has the potential to disincentivise farmers from seeking better methods of self-reliance and increasing productivity (Jackson et al. 2020).

Developing a drought management plan is something every farm operator should consider doing well ahead of the onset of a drought period. This will allow them to identify key decision points and establish their triggers for action while they are not under the stress of a drought, which is when they tend to be less capable of making sound decisions. This will help them to build a system that they can rely on during times of drought. In addition, this will ensure they are able to maximise the opportunities presented by droughts and avoid costly disasters.

4. Invest in Livestock Management

The last drought was tough for all farmers, and many are still recovering from the financial and emotional challenges. However, since then, most farmers are now looking ahead and thinking about how they can be better prepared for the next drought. The good news is that there are a number of things that they can do to increase their drought resilience.

One of the key factors is to diversify their income sources. By doing this, they can avoid relying on government assistance during the drought period and reduce their exposure to commodity prices. Additionally, they can invest in new farm infrastructure and make changes to their management practices. This includes investing in more dams and water tanks, silos, fodder sheds, and water infrastructure. In addition, most farmers will also put resources aside during high farming returns to be able to withstand longer periods of reduced income.

Another key factor is to implement a debt minimisation strategy. This involves reducing their overall debt levels and increasing their cash flow. While this may not be easy to do, it is a crucial part of drought resilience.

It is also important to invest in livestock management. By doing so, they can minimise their losses during the drought period and maximise their profits when they are able to sell stock. Additionally, they can ensure that their animals are healthy and well cared for during the drought by doing regular health checks and vaccinations.

Finally, it is important to keep up with the latest research on animal health. This will help them to identify any potential problems and make appropriate treatment decisions. It is also important to remember that it is vital to have a strong support network when you are dealing with drought. This support network can be made up of friends, family, and local community members. By having a strong support network, you will be able to cope with the hardships of drought and get through it successfully.

The University of Adelaide has been awarded a $4 million grant from the Australian Government to lead a new South Australian Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hub. The hub will undertake research, development, extension, and adoption activities to improve drought resilience on South Australian farms.