Adapting your farm

  • Addressing heat stress in cows

    During periods of high temperatures, heat stress management options include:

    • Providing shade and shelter Ensuring stock have plenty of access to clean drinking water
    • Use of active cooling sprays - e.g. to prevent mastitis sprinklers should be placed on timer, on for 3min and then off for 8min for both am and pm to assist in reducing cumulative heat load
    • Use of appropriate nutrition strategies – e.g. offering the best quality feed at times of heat stress (as animals won’t eat when heat stressed)
    • Conservation of water and energy – e.g. minimising the distances walked and/or ensuring cows have access to water as they leave the dairy. 

    Higher temperatures can cause heat stress and have a direct effect on milk production. There is also a trend for reduced fertility of cows as a result of higher temperatures. This could make an existing problem worse in some dairy regions, or create a management challenge in regions that are currently marginal for heat stress.

    Farmers need to be aware of the implications of heat stress (as they often are not immediately visible) and consider options for infrastructure requirements.

    In the long-term, genetic selection may need to take more account of a cow’s ability to perform at higher temperatures, though there are limitations to this strategy as more heat-tolerant livestock breeds usually have lower levels of productivity.

  • Responding to changes in pasture

    The combination of increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations, higher temperatures, lower rainfall and increased climate variability will challenge some aspects of the current dairy feedbase, while benefiting others. The overall challenge remains producing (and sometimes preserving) home grown forage of a suitable quality to match the feed requirements of the herd at a suitably low price to meet farm business requirements. In all cases, the scale of the response will depend on the scale of any climate changes.

    Temperatures during winter will be warmer, and there will be fewer frosts in some regions, so pasture growth rates are likely to increase over winter. This may influence other decisions associated with calving time, grazing management, fertiliser (especially N) timing and amount, cutting times for hay or silage etc.

    Feed gaps are likely to be more frequent, so feed purchasing and/or forage conservation activities may become more important as part of total farm management.

    Irrigation allocations are likely to be lower in some regions, exacerbating current, or creating new feed gaps. Depending on the situation, a full review of the current forage base, including the annual/perennial pasture mix, and the use of forage crops may be required to match the farm forage system to the new climatic conditions. Irrigation scheduling rules may change, and the process itself may become more important if irrigation supplies are lower or more variable.

    As summer-like conditions become extended, perennial ryegrass may struggle to grow through hotter and drier conditions. Summer cropping options should be considered in some regions as a feed source through the drier months.

  • Revising management strategies

    Dairy farming is already about implementing the best possible business management strategies to ensure the production system can be adjusted as each season progresses – this will not change, but the challenge may be greater with increased climate variability, and input and milk price volatility. Consequently, some current management strategies may need revision.

    At the strategic level, dairy farmers will need to determine which (if any) of the climate change issues should be the subject of immediate management action; those which require a watching brief but no current action, and those which can be dismissed from current planning or action.

    The most profitable balance between the price of resources such as land and water (for home grown forage) and the cost of bought in fodder against the farm gate price of milk may become more variable and require more frequent adjustment.

    It is very likely that there will need to be a greater focus on the use of water resources on the farm for both ‘dryland’ and irrigated dairies. Water security for non-irrigated farms and water use efficiency for irrigated farms will likely require more management attention.

    Depending on how climate change impacts on the grain and fodder industries that supply supplementary feed for dairy farms, there may be different options, and some current options may become more or less available, higher or lower quality and more or less expensive.

    Infrastructure adaptations may be appropriate on some farms to improve water security or to boost water use efficiency – for example, upgrading leaky systems or inefficient technologies. In response to increased heat stress, changing shed designs to incorporate passive cooling (energy use will be more expensive if a price is put on carbon emissions) may be appropriate, as will be maintaining or establishing shade and shelter belts.

    Financial budgeting and planning is important when income is variable. Careful planning can ensure risk is managed, saving in good years can reduce personal and financial stress in poorer years.
  • Increasing knowledge skills and capacity

    New knowledge and new skills will be required on dairy farms to ensure ongoing profitability and sustainability in the face of climate change and increased climate variability.

    Some farms will need to develop the capacity to identify and react to heat stress in dairy cattle. In anticipation, Dairy Australia has developed the cool cows website ( 

    Other farms may need to develop the skills to assess business vulnerability, for example to reduced water allocations, or to a reduced ability to produce as much home grown feed.

    The importance of keeping abreast of new developments will increase - from better understanding of pasture varieties and new adaptable species, through dairy cow nutrition and heat stress management, to business and risk management procedures, and understanding seasonal weather forecasting.

    Critically, many of the current ‘rules of thumb’ that simplify the day to day management on any farm and that govern the timing of management events and activities may break down in a hotter, drier and more variable climate. A simple example is that the ‘ideal’ dates for cutting silage or hay in any particular region are often linked to a certain date, or local event – increasingly, such ‘standard dates’ will be too late.

    Finally, as well as adapting to climate change, it is likely that dairy farmers will have to reduce their on-farm emissions of greenhouse gases in response to Government legislation.

    NEW RESOURCE (JUNE 2016): Supporting dairy business managers to manage for future climates

    The ‘Support Report’ is a milestone report of the DBFC project and provides a comprehensive outline of the support needs of dairy business managers in the context of future climate challenges and operating in a variable environment. Operating and transitioning dairy businesses into the future will rely on the skills and knowledge of managers and operators, as well as their broader social networks. Engaging with peers, professional services and industry-based organisations will assist dairy business managers in accessing resources, participating in learning and mentoring opportunities and finding new ways to manage a range of risks in a networked environment. The future pathway for each dairy business manager is an individual decision and will be influenced by their unique set of farmer skills, risk tolerance, business goals and available resources therefore support needs will vary in accordance to different risk profiles of business managers and their farming context. Support systems are more likely to be effective if they are flexible and tailored in order to meet the dynamic and diverse support needs of dairy business managers across Australia’s dairying regions.

    Farming experts and industry personnel identified key areas that require material, institutional and governance support. These areas were substantiated through industry related documents and research papers. The key areas for support include:
    • accessing quality extension and advisory services
    • upskilling of dairy business managers in both general and specialised knowledge and skills
    • adapting to climate change as business risk management
    • accessing a flexible and skilled on-farm workforce
    • maintaining the social license to operate
    • maintaining personal and family health and wellbeing
    • maintaining and improving regional infrastructure

    This report highlights the critical role of policy, government and the dairy industry in providing ongoing support structures, processes and resources to enhance the capacity of dairy business managers in responding to socio-environmental change and continuing dairying into the future.

  • Regional considerations

    The issues and challenges for individual farms are explored more fully in Climate and My Region (a dairy region by region assessment) and the farm greenhouse gas calculator (where individual farms can calculate their emissions profiles).