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Satellite data predicts bleak year ahead for WA farmers

08 August, 2006

Pasture growth rates across the south-west of Western Australia are expected to be around 60 per cent down on what they were last year and could be the worst in nearly 100 years, according to researchers at CSIRO Livestock Industries.

The prediction – by the division’s Pastures from Space group – follows a detailed analysis of satellite-generated data on weather patterns and pasture growth rates recorded over the past 12 years.

The data is used to produce pasture growth maps of the state and assess growth rates of pasture from Geraldton to Esperance.

Group project leader Dr Steve Gherardi said that even if rainfall patterns for the rest of the year were similar to last year, net biomass yields would be no more than 40 per cent of those in 2005.

He said the data also indicated WA was experiencing wild extremes in weather with very good years being followed by extremely bad years.

“2002 was considered a very bad year for WA farmers but our models show that 2006 will be far worse,” Dr Gherardi said. “By comparison, 2005 was a very good year.

“Unfortunately we are not Robinson Crusoe here – the eastern states are experiencing similar patterns with some areas being in drought for more than five years.

He said that while farmers could previously wait out bad years with the expectation that things would improve, recent weather patterns were almost totally unpredictable.

“Farmers are facing unprecedented management issues where they need to make predictions about when and how many animals they need to get rid of to enable them to carry on until the next break in April next year.”

Dr Gherardi said the Pastures from Space project was an example of how science was being used to assist farmers to manage their properties.

The satellite data provides a close-up picture of pasture biomass content. Using the latest technology scientists are able to use the images to measure the rate of growth of plants down to the level of individual paddocks on individual farms.

“By using satellite imagery, climate data and predictive modelling, science is able to give farmers a clearer indication of what may be around the corner. The Pastures from Space project is an example of bioscience making the most of advances in technology and innovation.”

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