Better forecasts still under the weather

10 Feb, 2015 07:55 AM
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The riskiest thing anyone could do is to take a weather forecast literally

CONFIRMING what most farmers already know, research shows that while weather forecasting is more accurate than ever, predictions should not be taken as gospel.

Newly completed research by a South Australian Nuffield scholar says that weather forecasting has become increasingly accurate in recent years, but farmers who take predictions literally are taking a big risk.

In his paper Weather Forecasting and Business Management Systems, Robin Schaefer says five- and seven-day forecasts in Australia have increased in accuracy by 45 per cent over the past 30 years, while the three-day forecast has increased accuracy by 27 per cent to become 97 per cent accurate.

Forecasting technology and methods had come a long way with the advent of more sophisticated technology like satellite forecasting, but primary producers should still be wary of the impact of over-subscribing to forecast data said Mr Schaefer, who undertook his Nuffield scholarship study with support from the Grains Research and Development Corporation (GRDC).

“Given the uncertain nature of weather forecasts, the riskiest thing anyone could do is to take a weather forecast literally,” said Mr Schaefer, who shares a collaborative farming venture at Loxton, SA.

“In the media we see stories of farmers who followed a forecast of a drought literally, made a dramatic business decision, such as deciding not to sow any crop at all or totally de-stocking, which proved to be the correct decision and resulted in a dramatic escape from its effects.

“For every one of these stories, there are many more where a dramatic decision proved to be incorrect resulting in huge losses.

"As weather forecasts continue to become more accurate farmers will begin to increase their reliance on them. However, this could increase the risk to the business, especially when the forecast will inevitably be wrong.”

The paper looks at an array of decision-making tools available to farmers in Australia and beyond, including popular services like Climate Kelpie, and forecasting technology and research overseas. While Australia is said to have seen rapid improvements in recent years, decision-support tools from Canada, New Zealand the United Kingdom, United States of America, among other countries, which he visited as part of his scholarship-supported study tour, offer lessons in how local services could enhance their offerings to farmers.

Mr Schaefer concludes that weather forecasting has plenty more progress to make, both in longer-term, seasonal forecasting, as well as more localised predictions via micro meteorology, to help farmers make the most of decisions informed by weather.

“The weather is an essential part of planning daily operations and in the longer term can mean the difference between a profitable and unprofitable year," he said.

"As a farmer I am also a weather forecaster, I refer to as much information as possible, from as many sources as I have available, then use this information to influence my decision making.

“Research needs to be targeted at seasonal forecasting. Investigations for this report have confirmed there is plenty of scope to continue to improve seasonal forecasting.

"To achieve this, researchers need to think outside the square, to be bold and innovative.

“On the opposite end of the scale to seasonal forecasting is the emerging science of micro meteorology.

“Currently any micrometeorology data that is collected is not normally available to farmers.

“As technology improves, with the advent of on-farm instrumentation and communications systems and satellite-derived, instantly retrievable information, it will become possible to map microclimate variations. This will be at time scales that are useful for input into businesses.”

Click here to listen to a GRDC Driving Agronomy interview with Robin Schaefer.

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