The Rangeland Journal The Rangeland Journal Society
Rangeland ecology and management
REVIEW (Open Access)

Climate change impacts on northern Australian rangeland livestock carrying capacity: a review of issues

G. M. McKeon A I J , G. S. Stone A , J. I. Syktus A , J. O. Carter A , N. R. Flood A , D. G. Ahrens A , D. N. Bruget A , C. R. Chilcott B , D. H. Cobon C , R. A. Cowley D , S. J. Crimp E , G. W. Fraser A , S. M. Howden E , P. W. Johnston F , J. G. Ryan G , C. J. Stokes H and K. A. Day A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Queensland Climate Change Centre of Excellence (QCCCE), Environmental Protection Agency, Climate Building, 80 Meiers Road, Indooroopilly, Qld 4068, Australia.

B Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia, 3 Baron-Hay Court, South Perth, WA 6151, Australia.

C Queensland Climate Change Centre of Excellence (QCCCE), Environmental Protection Agency, Climate Building, PO Box 102, Toowoomba, Qld 4350, Australia.

D NT Department of Regional Development, Primary Industry, Fisheries and Resources, PO Box 1346, Katherine, NT 0851, Australia.

E CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, GPO Box 284, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia.

F Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries, Animal Research Institute, 665 Fairfield Road, Yeerongpilly, Qld 4105, Australia.

G Centre for Remote Sensing and Spatial Information Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Qld 4072, Australia.

H CSIRO Climate Adaptation Flagship, PMB PO, Aitkenvale, Qld 4814, Australia.

I Land & Water Australia Senior Research Fellowship.

J Corresponding author. Email:

The Rangeland Journal 31(1) 1-29
Submitted: 3 December 2008  Accepted: 6 February 2009   Published: 26 March 2009


Grazing is a major land use in Australia’s rangelands. The ‘safe’ livestock carrying capacity (LCC) required to maintain resource condition is strongly dependent on climate. We reviewed: the approaches for quantifying LCC; current trends in climate and their effect on components of the grazing system; implications of the ‘best estimates’ of climate change projections for LCC; the agreement and disagreement between the current trends and projections; and the adequacy of current models of forage production in simulating the impact of climate change. We report the results of a sensitivity study of climate change impacts on forage production across the rangelands, and we discuss the more general issues facing grazing enterprises associated with climate change, such as ‘known uncertainties’ and adaptation responses (e.g. use of climate risk assessment).

We found that the method of quantifying LCC from a combination of estimates (simulations) of long-term (>30 years) forage production and successful grazier experience has been well tested across northern Australian rangelands with different climatic regions. This methodology provides a sound base for the assessment of climate change impacts, even though there are many identified gaps in knowledge. The evaluation of current trends indicated substantial differences in the trends of annual rainfall (and simulated forage production) across Australian rangelands with general increases in most of western Australian rangelands (including northern regions of the Northern Territory) and decreases in eastern Australian rangelands and south-western Western Australia.

Some of the projected changes in rainfall and temperature appear small compared with year-to-year variability. Nevertheless, the impacts on rangeland production systems are expected to be important in terms of required managerial and enterprise adaptations.

Some important aspects of climate systems science remain unresolved, and we suggest that a risk-averse approach to rangeland management, based on the ‘best estimate’ projections, in combination with appropriate responses to short-term (1–5 years) climate variability, would reduce the risk of resource degradation.

Climate change projections – including changes in rainfall, temperature, carbon dioxide and other climatic variables – if realised, are likely to affect forage and animal production, and ecosystem functioning. The major known uncertainties in quantifying climate change impacts are: (i) carbon dioxide effects on forage production, quality, nutrient cycling and competition between life forms (e.g. grass, shrubs and trees); and (ii) the future role of woody plants including effects of fire, climatic extremes and management for carbon storage.

In a simple example of simulating climate change impacts on forage production, we found that increased temperature (3°C) was likely to result in a decrease in forage production for most rangeland locations (e.g. –21% calculated as an unweighted average across 90 locations). The increase in temperature exacerbated or reduced the effects of a 10% decrease/increase in rainfall respectively (–33% or –9%). Estimates of the beneficial effects of increased CO2 (from 350 to 650 ppm) on forage production and water use efficiency indicated enhanced forage production (+26%). The increase was approximately equivalent to the decline in forage production associated with a 3°C temperature increase. The large magnitude of these opposing effects emphasised the importance of the uncertainties in quantifying the impacts of these components of climate change.

We anticipate decreases in LCC given that the ‘best estimate’ of climate change across the rangelands is for a decline (or little change) in rainfall and an increase in temperature. As a consequence, we suggest that public policy have regard for: the implications for livestock enterprises, regional communities, potential resource damage, animal welfare and human distress. However, the capability to quantify these warnings is yet to be developed and this important task remains as a challenge for rangeland and climate systems science.

Additional keywords: El Niño Southern Oscillation, forage production, grazing, land and pasture degradation, potential evapotranspiration, seasonal climate forecasting.


We gratefully acknowledge the support of A. Peacock and T. Van Bruggen in preparing the document. We also appreciated the comments of L. Pahl, A. Panjkov, P. Pinjuh, N. Treloar, N. Toombs, G. Whish, and B. Zhang. The important insights of J. Clewett, J. Scanlan, A. Pressland, A. Lauder and several anonymous referees were extremely valuable in dealing with the complexities of the paper. The senior author gratefully acknowledges the support a Land & Water Australia Senior Research Fellowship.


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