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Comparing the climate experienced during the Cicerone farmlet experiment against the climatic record

Behrendt, K., Scott, J. M., Mackay, D. F., Murison, R.
Animal production science 2013 v.53 no.8 pp. 658-669
climatic factors, confidence interval, farming systems, field experimentation, grazing management, livestock production, management systems, pastures, plant available water, profitability, rain, rotational grazing, simulation models, soil fertility, soil nutrients, temperature, water holding capacity, New South Wales
Farming systems research conducted under dryland conditions is subject to the vagaries of the climate during the experimental period. Whether such an experiment experiences a representative series of climatic years must be examined in relation to the longer term climatic record. The Cicerone Project’s farmlet experiment was conducted on the Northern Tablelands of New South Wales, Australia, to investigate the profitability and sustainability of three different management systems: one managed under typical, moderate-input conditions (farmlet B); a second which employed a higher level of pasture inputs and soil fertility (farmlet A); and a third which focussed on the use of moderate inputs and intensive rotational grazing (farmlet C). The climate experienced during the 6.5-year experimental period was compared with the 118-year climatic record, using a biophysical simulation model of grazed systems. The model utilised the long-term daily climate data as inputs and provided outputs that allowed comparison of parameters known to affect grazed pastures. Modelled soil-available water, the number of soil moisture stress days (SMSDs) limiting pasture growth, and growth indices over the experimental period (2000–06) were compared with data over the climatic record from 1890 to 2007. SMSDs were defined as when the modelled available soil moisture to a depth of 300 mm was <17% of water-holding capacity. In addition, minimum temperatures and, in particular, the frequency of frosts, were compared with medium-term (1981–2011) temperature records. Wavelet transforms of rainfall and modelled available soil water data were used to separate profile features of these parameters from the noise components of the data. Over the experimental period, both rainfall and available soil water were more commonly significantly below than above the 95% confidence intervals of both parameters. In addition, there was an increased frequency of severe frosting during the dry winters experienced over the 6.5-year period. These dry and cold conditions were likely to have limited the responses to the pasture and grazing management treatments imposed on the three farmlets. In particular, lower than average levels of available soil water were likely to have constrained pasture production, threatened pasture persistence, and reduced the response of the pasture to available soil nutrients and, as a consequence, livestock production and economic outcomes. Ideally, dryland field experimentation should be conducted over a representative range of climatic conditions, including soil moisture conditions both drier and wetter than average. The drier than average conditions, combined with a higher than normal frequency of severe frosts, mean that the results from the Cicerone Project’s farmlet experiment need to be viewed in the context of the climate experienced over this 6.5-year period.