Farmers frustrated after destocking following BOM’s incorrect El Niño forecast

Livestock producers are claiming that unreliable long-term weather forecasts have played havoc with sheep and cattle prices, after farmers made large business decisions based on media reports.

Wet conditions surprised farmers in some parts of Victoria because the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) declared an El Niño event in September, which created expectations of hotter and drier weather to come.

Scott Herrman, a sheep and cattle producer from Hamilton in south-west Victoria, said after a dry spring and the declaration, he sold livestock.

He now wishes he hadn’t.

“It put a lot of pressure onto decision making about whether to hold or sell and I think a lot of people were gun shy on holding stock and didn’t want to put expensive grain down cheap mouths,” he said.

“Personally, we got to November and prices weren’t great and the weather forecast wasn’t brilliant, so I made the decision to sell steers I probably would have kept, with the benefit of hindsight.”

Scott Herrman, pictured here with his children Noah and Lara, regrets destocking ahead of summer.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

Decisions prove costly

Lamb prices for spring 2023 dropped almost half of what they were fetching the year before, with reports of sheep being sold for $1 each, while the main cattle value indicator dropped about 20 per cent over the same time. 

Since the rain, sheep and cattle markets have spiked, with recent lamb sales increasing by up to $50 per animal.

Mr Herrman said decisions to sell based on the expectation of a hot, dry summer had cost many farmers a lot of money. 

“Steers I sold for a bit over $2 a kilogram, whereas now they’d be close to $3, so there’s probably a dollar a kilogram just on the cattle side of things,” he said.

“Crossbred ewes for a period were making between $20 and $30 a head, now heavy sheep are making well over $100.

“If we’d known the weather would do what it did, we would have kept them.”

The worst conditions in seven years led to sheep and lamb slaughter at saleyards in 2023.(ABC Rural: Eden Hynninen)

BOM to blame?

Mr Herrman said he did not hold the BOM solely responsible and expected people would consider long-term forecasts with more caution in the future.

“I’ve got no doubt it’s a difficult job forecasting forward, and I think sometimes people fall into the trap of taking it for gospel, so I think there’s going to be a lot more caution about that going forward,” he said.

“You can’t put all the blame at their feet; it’s just one of those things.”

While the BOM’s models late last year were showing increasing rainfall for December and January, that message largely did not get through to the public, leading to a review of how forecasts are communicated.

Farmers have been critical of the BOM’s seasonal and short-term forecasts.(ABC News: Evelyn Leckie)

Karl Braganza, national manager of climate services at the bureau, said there had been an unusual combination of climate drivers in recent months. 

“August, September, October nationally was actually the driest three-month period of any three months on record,” he said.

“What’s happened has been quite surprising actually, from those really dry conditions and we started getting some rainfall in October and since then we’ve had really high rainfall totals.”

Dr Braganza said the stormy weather was caused by the Southern Annular Mode (SAM), a climate driver that was associated with increased rainfall into south-eastern Australia.

“It’s very unusual to have an El Niño, a delayed monsoon and a SAM — so the winds around Antarctica have contracted further south towards to continent,” he said.

“It’s not unusual as El Niño backs off to get some rainfall events, but to get the regularity of rainfall that we’ve seen, and these extended humid conditions is much more consistent with a La Niña event.”

The Southern Annular Mode (SAM) is forecast to remain positive during the coming weeks.(ABC News)

Over-reliance on forecasts

Dr Braganza said he understood the frustration from the farming community towards the BOM.

“It’s just one of those years that’s been very, very difficult to forecast,” he said.

“It’s really a case of every sector probably has a different way to look at a long-ranged forecast … a lot of our messaging was geared towards emergency services.

“Depending on what you’re doing and what your risk setting is, you would interpret the seasonal forecast a little bit differently.”

West Victorian sheep farmer Justin Cashman, who is a butcher at Midwest Meats in Colac, said media reports also contributed to livestock markets tanking in late 2023.

“There was a lot of talk that we were going to have a very dry season, which invariably does influence your choices,” he said.

“It’s definitely had an impact on prices and people’s management decisions as to how they’ve managed livestock numbers and pasture.

“No one expected the weather we’ve had in the past month or two — it’s been a fantastic season really.”

The price of lamb chops in the major supermarkets took months to reflect saleyard prices.(ABC Rural: Jane McNaughton)

Simon Quilty, meat and livestock analyst at Global AgriTrends, was unequivocal in his defence of the BOM, and said to “simply blame the bureau” was “naive”.

He said there were numerous reasons behind decisions to reduce the quantity of stock held last year, and the subsequent price crash — including extremely dry conditions and expensive feed.

Simon Quilty puts the losses down to feed costs, not weather forecasts.(ABC Wodonga: Ashlee Charlton)

“To me, the real driver wasn’t BOM, it was feed costs, which were extraordinarily high in August, September, October last year and people did not want to carry their animals through summer with those extraordinary costs and low prices,” he said.

“The two previous dry cycles we had, early decisions to sell were made in both and both were the right decisions, because it got drier.”

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