Dairy businesses for future climates


The Australian dairy industry has been on a long term trend towards intensification of farm systems, but this trend has been questioned in light of predictions for warmer, drier and more variable future climates. This project focused on dairy systems in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, where research team explored how farms may perform under predicted climate changes out to 2040, and how adaptation can modify these impacts.

Project outline

A team of researchers, farm consultants and farmers used case study farms from Central Gippsland (Victoria), the Fleurieu Peninsula (South Australia) and north west Tasmania to investigate what climate conditions will occur in dairy regions by 2040 and explore what farm systems may best suit those conditions.

Led by Catherine Phelps and Gillian Hayman (Dairy Australia), Matthew Harrison (University of Tasmania), Brendan Cullen and Margaret Ayre (UM) and Dan Armstrong (D-ARM Consulting), the study used biophysical and economic modelling and social research methodologies to examine three contrasting development options: ‘Intensify’ (increased stocking rate and off-farm resources); ‘Simplify’ (reduced stocking rate and off-farm resources); and ‘Adapt’ (re-organise current resources).


The modelling studies showed that, across the three regions, climate change increased winter and early spring pasture growth rates, but this was counteracted by both later autumn breaks and shorter spring growing seasons, regardless of climate scenario or development option. This is likely to result in less pasture being directly grazed and more being conserved and fed back to cows. In Tasmania, the availability of irrigation was important for mitigating the impacts of climate change.

Model projections indicated that by 2040 under the high climate change scenario:

None of the three development options were universally better than the others for abating climate change impacts; each option offered opportunities and trade-offs. Across the regions though, there were some general trends:

The researchers measured the productivity challenge of climate change, estimating that, in the worse-case scenario, to maintain profitability in 2040 the annual rate of productivity growth needed was 0.6% per year in Gippsland and the Fleurieu Peninsula, and 0.3% per year in Tasmania. This productivity growth is a substantial additional challenge for the industry on top of ‘business-as-usual’.

In addition to the modelling efforts, the project team included regional working groups which connected farmers and farm consultants with the researchers to ‘ground-truth’ the modelling and ensure the data were meaningful and practical at the farm level.

The social research component of the project explored the adaptive capacity of dairy farmers via interviews and focus groups. The results suggest that farmers are confident to adapt to incremental climate change; that they expect climate change to be largely linear and gradual; and that climate challenges are not a deciding factor current development planning. Successful adaptation in the future can be enabled a range of support services and networks including: peer-based producer groups, high quality agricultural service providers (e.g. agronomist consultants), good access to counselling services; and connections with industry-related organisations, local governments, public and private research organisations.

Further information about the project is available from the Dairy Climate Toolkit website. 

For an outline of some more of the project's final results and outcomes, see the media coverage from August 2016.

Related resources

Title Excerpt
Presentations: Dairy businesses for future climates Presentations from the DBFC showcase event, August 2016.
Research update: Dairy businesses for future climates A research update from the DBFC project team, November 2014.
Summaries and reports: Dairy businesses for future climates A series of summary reports and fact sheets on the DBFC project.
Video: summary of the Dairy businesses for future climates project National findings of the DBFC project.
Whole farm systems modelling and analysis publications A bibliographic survey of research publications produced by PICCC's modelling projects.