Pastures and climate extremes: Impacts of cool season warming and drought on the productivity of key pasture species in a field experiment

  • Amber Churchill (Creator)
  • Sally Power (Creator)
  • Haiyang Zhang (Creator)
  • Kathryn Fuller (Creator)
  • Karen Catunda (Creator)
  • Manjunatha Chandregowd (Creator)
  • Chioma Igwenagu (Creator)
  • Vinod Jacob (Creator)



Shifts in the timing, intensity and/or frequency of climate extremes, such as severe drought and heatwaves, can generate sustained shifts in ecosystem function with important ecological and economic impacts for rangelands and managed pastures. The Pastures and Climate Extremes experiment (PACE) in Southeast Australia was designed to investigate the impacts of a severe winter/spring drought (60% rainfall reduction) and, for a subset of species, a factorial combination of drought and elevated temperature (ambient +3 °C) on pasture productivity. The experiment included nine common pasture and Australian rangeland species from three plant functional groups (C3 grasses, C4 grasses and legumes) planted in monoculture. Winter/spring drought resulted in productivity declines of 45% on average and up to 74% for the most affected species (Digitaria eriantha) during the 6-month treatment period, with eight of the nine species exhibiting significant yield reductions. Despite considerable variation in species' sensitivity to drought, C4 grasses were more strongly affected by this treatment than C3 grasses or legumes. Warming also had negative effects on cool-season productivity, associated at least partially with exceedance of optimum growth temperatures in spring and indirect effects on soil water content. The combination of winter/spring drought and year-round warming resulted in the greatest yield reductions. We identified responses that were either additive such that there was only as significant warming effect under drought (Festuca), or less-than-additive, where there was no drought effect under warming (Medicago), compared to ambient plots. Results from this study highlight the sensitivity of diverse pasture species to increases in winter and spring drought severity similar to those predicted for this region, and that anticipated benefits of cool-season warming are unlikely to be realised. Overall, the substantial negative impacts on productivity suggest that future, warmer, drier climates will result in shortfalls in cool-season forage availability, with profound implications for the livestock industry and natural grazer communities.
Date made available2022

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