The family responsibility: How young rural Queensland farmers are responding to climate change
Adapting to the rapidly changing climate is a reality the global world now faces. Queensland’s agricultural sector, like others, have a unique set of challenges they are facing to ensure the longevity and productivity of their land and livelihoods.
Tom Cranny is reluctant to admit climate change is affecting his farms, but he is no climate denier.
“I don’t see why that (climate change) would be an issue for us,” he said.
His sentiment is rather optimistic: it's been less than a year since he took over the family farm in Maranoa, one of worst climate affected districts in Queensland.
“We’re looking after our country, managing herd, we’re not managing the country on what rainfall we think we’re going to get we manage it on what rainfall
we have got.”
The Cranney family has been farming cattle outside of Goondiwindi, 350km southwest of Brisbane, for more than four generations. Farming is in Cranney’s blood and there is large volume of family know-how to help them survive extreme weather variability.
It was not long ago, in January 2017, that drought took hold across the Murray-Darling Basin, severely effecting southwestern Queensland. The following 36 months were the driest period on record in Australia, only beginning to ease in December 2019.
“The drought from 2018 to 2019 was on record a long way behind anything that’s ever been experienced here before, in my dad’s life he has never seen anything like it.”
Tom (33) recalled the drastic measures his dad was forced to take, “We took cattle away on agistment, we sold off half our herd.”
He is hopeful that his family’s know-how will see him through periods of drought to come.
“We’ve used a lot of grazing practices for thirty-five years and having done that left us in a pretty good spot even in the drought because we de-stocked when we needed to.”
The impacts of climate change are expected to prolong droughts and heatwaves with more severe rainfall patterns. With these extreme weather conditions expected to exceed historical standards, the Cranney’s family adaptive farming practices will soon be put to the test.
Just over 60km north of Goondiwindi is Farleigh Downs, the Selby’s grazier farm.
Harry Selby (29) is another one of a new generation of young farmers taking on their family farms in the Maranoa region of southwestern Queensland.
The Selby family purchased the cattle station in 2000. Harry spent most of his childhood exploring the vast acreage before moving to Brisbane to pursue university studies and a career in construction management. In 2020, Harry returned home to Goondiwindi to work on the family property.
“I eventually just went full-time on the farm because I realised I needed to be spending more time here,” he said.
“I grew to love working on a cattle station after recognising the privilege of hands-on work and the potential beneficial impacts that different farm management practices can have.”
Both Tom and Harry may be reluctant to be drawn into a conversation on climate change but the persistent droughts are not something that either of them can brush aside. Like many farmers, they are leaning on family knowledge but more radical adaptation practices will be integral to surviving the droughts to come.
Harry admits that times have been tough, but he is optimistic that their knowledge of farming will see them through.
“It was pretty poor and for two years in a row turned things pretty ordinary,” he said.
“We probably look after our grasses as a priority, Dad’s been pretty good at that, he’s always out there measuring how many stock days and whatnot ahead which is really good practice especially leading into a drought.”
Harry is painfully aware family expertise and good practice alone is not enough to cushion the blow.
The 2018-19 drought was particularly hard on the Selby family. “We didn’t keep too many cows going at that stage, we probably only had about 60 head which is nothing, we run 600-700 head here on an average year, during the good season,” Harry said.
“In 2019, we had our driest year on record with around 130mm for the years total when the average rainfall is approximately 600mm, for two years in a row things were pretty poor.”
“During this drought my parents had minimal cash-flow.”
Harry isn’t certain that climate change is solely to blame for the droughts farmers in the Maranoa have endured but he is certain that, with the right land management practices, their land will be prosperous for generations to come.
While they may not speak the language of climate science, the family knowledge that Tom and Harry are drawing on means they’re on the right track.
Maintaining healthy soil for livestock grazing is integral to storing carbon in the soil and reducing greenhouse gas emissions while still ensuring the longevity of their land’s productivity.
Traditional agricultural practices rely heavily on chemical pesticides and fertilizers which affects soil health and negatively impacts the environment. Many farmers are moving away from these heavy techniques towards regenerative practices that revitalise the land to create more sustainable cycles of food production, leaving a lower environmental impact.
For both of these young farmers, growing grass is what their business is based around: without grass there is no livestock.
“The best way to keep it (grass) in a state you want it to be and growing and things happening below the soil, is by moving cattle around,” Tom explained. This has been one of the big changes which he has maintained on the Cranney farm.
"Most days we’re moving livestock into new paddocks every day, at the moment some paddocks are getting at least a month’s rest between having any livestock in them and sometimes up to three months through winter.”
“That’s been a big change that happened.”
Supporting plant growth and ground cover is one of the CSIRO’s suggested agricultural management practices that increases the amount of carbon stored in the soil which assists in mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.
For Harry, it’s a delicate balance between generational knowledge and precisely assessing what the land needs.
“We frequently update our calculations for the carrying capacity of our property, to adjust stocking density to the amount of feed and rainfall we have had,” Harry said.
“We have plans to upgrade our fencing, water and reserve feed, to help control the stocking rates and protect the vegetation when it is needed.”
Macintyre Ag Alliance is Goondiwindi’s local agricultural organisation. The group aims to share knowledge on improving agricultural techniques and to advocate for progressive environmental outcomes to ensure a stable environment for generations to come. As members, Tom and Harry have both seen change in the air: farmers who are constantly trying to better their practices.
Macintyre Ag also runs farm tours, giving farmers a chance to share their knowledge and experiences, much to the benefit of young farmers like Tom and Harry.
“I’m seeing the results in their biology and their cattle, if they’re local its especially helpful because its comparable rainfalls and possibly comparable soils,” Harry said
“It’s hard to get across how helpful that is, especially for young farmers because there is no better learning than seeing what’s working and what’s not in the paddocks next door.”
With Roma's big skies and harsh beauty it is easy to see why Tom and Harry were drawn back to the Maranoa after a few years in the city.
Their return home has inadvertently placed them on one of the frontlines of climate change in Queensland.
Regardless of their views on the climate crisis, Tom and Harry have already had to adapt and prepare for the changes to come. The challenges have not deterred Tom, who is optimistic about the future of the Cranney farm.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t still be here in decades still to come with the way we’re looking after our place and always looking for new ways of being able to look after it better too.”