Author Archives: milkmaidmarian

About milkmaidmarian

Our family (me, my husband, little girl and boy) have a medium-sized farm in Gippsland, Victoria. Our farm is rain-fed rather than irrigated and has been in the family for generations. We love our farm and cows. We hope our blog, Milk Maid Marian We hope this blog helps other Aussies get a taste of life on the land.

The CSIRO and farming in a changing climate

This is one of the worst seasons on record around here and the only thing that has made it survivable has been good, early planning.

We sold 10 per cent of our cows and planted our summer turnips in the second week of Spring to give them a chance of survival. We pushed bloody hard to get an irrigator up and running so we could create a lush oasis of millet with water from our farm dam.

IrrigatorLoRes

Most importantly, we were quick to speak with our bank manager and buy hundreds of tonnes of extra hay and silage. It was not a pretty plan. It was a survival plan in the teeth of a failed season and a milk price that is below our break even point.

We are still a long way from next Spring but the survival plan is getting us through. I can’t imagine how we would have managed without it.

Central to our planning were the CSIRO’s soil moisture maps and Pastures from Space. Combining the two tools, we could see that not only were our pastures not growing in the peak of Spring, there was little chance they could. The soil was powder dry all the way down to a couple of metres. That can only be fixed by weeks and weeks of rain.

PfromSpace

In other words, we knew we were stuffed early enough to do something about it, thanks to the CSIRO. It’s survivable if we plan early, plan well and it doesn’t happen too regularly.

Still raw with the discomfort of this experience, I was gobsmacked to hear the CSIRO’s chief executive tell the ABC’s 7.30 Report that the climate change question has been answered.

The big question still remains for this farmer: how common will this type of season be in the future? The climate modelling is just not detailed or accurate enough. All we know is that it will be drier, warmer and more unpredictable than ever. And that’s nowhere near enough information to make good decisions.

To be frank, we don’t even have a worthwhile forecast for the next fortnight or the three months ahead. The Bureau of Meteorology’s oft-reported seasonal outlook is so unreliable here, it is literally the equivalent of tossing a coin – by the Bureau’s own admission.

We need more climate information, not less. If this type of season begins to roll around every five to 10 years rather than every 20 to 50, it’s no longer going to be viable to keep doing what we’re doing.

Farmers are innovators by nature. Rather than simply howling to the wind when it’s all too late, I will do something about it. What, for sure, I don’t know. Cuts to the CSIRO’s climate and land and water divisions will make finding the answers ever more difficult.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Climate, Farm

Dairy boom just around the corner

Boom! Boom! Boom!

So bang the dairy drums. Column inches gush with talk of rivers of white gold while the Hot Copper share market forum’s “most discussed stocks” list is topped by a dairy proposition and includes another two dairy stocks.

I may be a mere farmer but the dairy proposition in question, Carbon Conscious, seems ambitious at best and fanciful at worst. The company has a 12-month lease on a farm (with an option to extend it if it can pull off plans for intensive housing facilities) and has bought 418 cows. It appears from the announcement document that it hopes to:

  1. find a processor that will buy its milk at a locked in premium price
  2. the processor will then process and package it specially for the company
  3. then the milk is sold to the farm landlord
  4. the farm landlord exports the milk to China
  5. the farm landlord sends some of the profits back to the farm tenant.

Sounds like a great plan but it will face a few challenges. First, the investors believe they can milk 2,500 cows three times a day in a 60-stand rotary. Whew!

Lost you? Well, according to rotary dairy maker, Daviesway, “A 60 unit rotary dairy with an average 10 minute rotation should milk 300 cows per hour with an average production of 30 litres per cow.”

That would mean the proposed herd of 2,500 cows would take more than eight hours to milk, three times a day. In other words, non-stop milking. Hope they have a crack team of milkers and mechanics on hand! You may call this a mere technical problem but dairies aren’t cheap (a few hundred thousand) and it seems somebody’s overlooked a pretty basic calculation or that this is less farm and more factory.

On the topic of factories, getting the project off the ground will require a great deal of sensitivity. The “system 5” style of farming described in the announcement is the most intensive type of dairy farming in the world. Cows are housed year-round and do not graze grass.

Only a few months ago, public opposition thwarted the development of a dairy farm in the small hamlet of Kernot by Chinese investors.  The Carbon Conscious farm is in a far more sensitive “lifestyle” location and will be more intensive than the developments planned for Kernot.

On top of that, the announcement makes no mention of an arrangement with any of the three processors in Western Australia capable of the job.

Yes, at this stage, it’s really just a plan with a rented farm. Even so, Carbon Conscious is laughing all the way to the bank. Its shares opened at 20.5 cents this morning, up from just 7.8 cents on Christmas Eve.

The dairy stratosphere is now littered with investor thought bubbles. Here are my top four:

  • Mining millionaire, Bill McDonald set the typewriters rattling in 2014 when he said his new Camperdown Dairy International company would build a $120 million plant but The Weekly Times reports the site is largely building rubble,
  • Ningbo Dairy at Kernot, where public opposition has forced the Chinese investors to put the property back on the market,
  • the company formerly known as Linear Capital – Aerem – has flirted with purchasing 50 farms and failed to meet one self-imposed deadline after another, while taking the once-excited farmers for a merry ride, and
  • Gina Rinehart on the other hand, flirted only briefly with dairy, putting her $500 million project on hold when she realised dairy prices go down as well as up.

“Why?” I asked an investor friend this morning. I don’t understand. Robobank’s analysts have been forecasting a return to health for global dairy markets for what must be a year now. They’ve pushed out any forecast recovery until late 2016, blaming the delay on stronger than expected European production.

Dairy farming is complex. You must be able to manage people, animals, pastures, machinery and cash with precision to make a profit. To make the money that investor shareholders typically demand, everything has to go right, too.

While farmers are often characterised as lacking the professionalism of big business, I’ve been disappointed for the farming friends treated so shabbily by would-be investors in 2015. I really hope 2016 will be different.

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Creature report – farming in the wilds of 2015

A new genus: the man-eating wallaby

A new genus: the man-eating wallaby

It’s not just the live animals you’ve got to be wary of here on the farm. Aside from the copperhead that kept Wayne company during milking the other week, perhaps our most memorable wildlife encounter of 2015 was actually with a dead animal undoubtedly new to science: the man-eating wallaby.

One rainy winter’s night, Wayne called a halt to cooking the evening meal when he drew me aside to check out a mysterious shape wrapped in a tea towel.

Bent low and unwrapping the tea towel slowly, he said in hushed tones, “I found this outside the pump shed. Take a look at the fangs on it.”

“Wow,” I gasped, “see how they hook together. Looks like they could tear a nasty hole in your leg.”

“F*@&ing scary wallaby,” whispered Wayne with a poker face.

After nearly choking on a mouthful of water, I came up for air, and wondered if I saw the faintest of smirks on Wayne’s face as he retaliated with: “It’s a bloody wallaby alright, you should see its tail!” Was the joke on me or City Boy? I’ll never know for sure.

Life and death
It was raining too, when the kids and I discovered a dead kangaroo along the boundary fence. Her eyes were dull, legs immobile.

While I worked on the fence, the kids took a closer look and announced a miracle! “Mama, Mama, it’s alive, it’s alive,” they shouted, arms flailing wildly as they ran towards me.

They were right, almost. The kangaroo had killed herself in an impact with the fence but her pouch rolled and wriggled with life. Oh my god. The kindest thing might have been to euthanase the squirming joey right there but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Luckily, we had latex milking gloves in the Bobcat and, with my heart in my mouth, I reached deep into the still-warm pouch. After a few tries, out came a weeks-old hairless male joey, plop, into a towel we carry around in case of mud pie catastrophes.

Joey in front of the fire

Joey in front of the fire

Wrapped in the towel and my raincoat, joey was held close to Zoe’s tummy for the chilly trip back to the warm of our hearth. We got him off to wildlife rescue volunteers, who told me just the other week that he’s soon to be released back into the forest. ‘Til we meet again!

Reptilian gatecrasher
In general, I’m not a big fan of reptiles on the farm but Blueys are different. Why, we even had one as a class pet in primary school. So, when this fellow appeared at home, I was keen to introduce him to the kids.

As with the cicada conditioning calamity, it seemed my introduction may have backfired a little. But all was forgotten later when Bluey unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere to watch the evening news with us.

Bluey obviously likes to be well informed

Bluey obviously likes to be well informed

Beast becomes beauty before our eyes
Not every creature we see makes such an exciting entrance but we marveled every day as we walked to the bus stop during Spring, watching a web of monsters transform themselves.

From this

From this

To this

To this

To emerge as the gorgeous Northern Jezebel

To emerge as the gorgeous Northern Jezebel

A motley crew!
There were plenty of other beauties along the way, too. Enjoy just a selection of what the farm offered up to us in 2015!
CreatureYabbyLoRes

CreatureHoppingMouseLoRes

CreatureFrogLoRes

CreatureEchidnaFaceLoRes

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Filed under Environment, Farm

Milking in a snake pit

In the midst of a wild storm that pelted the farm with hailstones the size of Maltesers, Wayne texted me a photo from the dairy. That was unusual. I only ever get texts from the dairy when there’s been a disaster.

The first of 14 rows

The first of 14 rows

It all looked okay on my phone’s tiny screen, so I literally shrugged my shoulders, put it down to a fit of boyish exuberance over the hail and turned my attention back to making dinner and the four-year-old yanking at my shirt.

It all became clearer when Wayne arrived home at half past eight.

W: Did you get my text?
M: Yeah, what a hail storm!

W: (Rolling of eyes) So, you didn’t look at it.
M: Yeah, we saw the hail up here too, the kids wanted to go out there and eat it!

W: (zooming into a section of the picture on his phone) Have a closer look…
M: Oh.

CopperheadMovingCloseLoRes

M: When did that happen?
W: (Look of pride) First row.

M: First row?! What did you do?
W: I had my face close to a cow, putting on the cups, when I felt something fall on the top of my boot. I just kicked it off without really thinking about it, expecting it to be a piece of rubber or something that had come loose. But when it didn’t feel stiff enough, I looked down and saw it f*@#&ing wriggle away.

For a minute, I just stood there frozen, then grabbed a bit of poly pipe and tried to whack it but the pipe got snagged in the gear above the pit. I hosed it up the other end of the pit and let it eat frogs. Every time it came too close, I hosed it again.

M: But how did you get rid of it?
W: I didn’t. It’ll probably find its own way out or Clarkie’ll find it in the morning. I’ve written a note on the whiteboard.

While Wayne was brought up in the city, Clarkie is a genuine bushman. I’ve seen him pick up a huntsman spider like it was a hamster and the man really can command a lasso and crack a stockwhip off the back of a horse. Wayne’s theory was Clarkie’d think nothing of milking cows in a snake pit.

M: (Incredulous) And what if he doesn’t read the whiteboard? And what if the thing winds itself around the stainless steel and gets him in the goolies? And what if he can’t see it at 6am and spends the whole milking semi-petrified wondering where it is? Clarkie’s good but, come on, Wayne!
W: Well, I’ll ring him now and let him know.

Obviously, Wayne and I have different OHS management styles.

While Wayne was phoning Clarkie (who apparently just laughed, whether that was hysterically or not, I can’t say), I was phoning a snake catcher.

About an hour and 20 minutes’ drive away, Jeff from VenomWise was the closest snake catcher I could find. The man was amazing. I told him I thought we had a copperhead in the dairy and that it had to be gone before 6am. It was already 9pm and all he said was: “I’ll leave right now but could you do me a favour and have someone keep an eye on him so I know where to find him?”

Since my mother was here for a rare one-night’s visit, Wayne insisted he would go on snake duty. So, taking a packet of cheezels, he pulled up a seat in the silent, empty milking platform to watch over his reptilian dairy hand.

This was the next text:

CopperheadCoilLoRes

I made a morale-boosting call.

M: Is he good company?
W: (Animated) Did you see where he is? I couldn’t see him when I came in, so I went down into the pit to have a look and thought he’d gone until I came back up to the steps. I’ve just walked over the bloody thing!
M: (Belly laugh) Just stay on the platform, eat your Cheezels and stay away from the fridge, for God’s sake!

This text came through a few minutes later:

CreepyJointSpiderLoRes

Another morale-boosting call was in order:

M: You’re getting freaked out by a huntsman?
W: I leant over the steps to have a closer look at the snake and as I held onto the banister, this bloody thing ran over my hand.
W: (Said with passion) This is a f*@$ing creepy joint!

Wayne’s lonely vigil finally came to a close at 10.30pm when, true to his word, Jeff from VenomWise arrived. Jeff suspected the metre-long snake probably fell from the rafters when the hail hit.

Wayne may not be a bushman but I’m proud of a man who milks for three hours in a snake pit and then misses dinner to sit with it for another hour and a half to make sure his mate’s safe in the morning.

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Who deserves the cream of Australian dairy?

“When we have to go to four different stores or supermarkets and still can’t buy a single tin of what I need … start looking after Australian babies first before sending all of our stock overseas for a ridiculous profit. Money hungry f****.”
– Australian resident angered by infant formula shortages

Australians do not expect to see bare supermarket shelves but the unthinkable has happened. Infant formula is in short supply. Apparently, it’s all due to people sending tins of the stuff over to China where parents certainly don’t take abundant high-quality food for granted.

Australians have not only been surprised but outraged, as illustrated so delightfully by the opening quote from an anonymous news.com.au interviewee. Why, there have even been “semi-riots” at the checkouts!

The industry is struggling to increase supply, which isn’t easy as an article by Dairy Innovation Australia explains. A petition demanding the supermarkets ration infant formula has attracted around 4000 signatures and both Coles and Woolies have increasingly tightened restrictions.

Then, today, the Greens and the government agreed to make it harder for foreigners to buy Australian land and water. According to The Weekly Times, “the screening threshold for foreign buyers of agricultural land reduced from $252 million to $15 million, and down to $55 million for investment in agribusiness”.

It’s great to see that what we produce here on the farm is treasured by Australians but why isn’t it valued?

It seems milk is so cheap and abundant, it is worth less than water. Except when the farmer is offered a fair price for her land by someone who really appreciates its true value. How ironic that this the only time Australian food is too precious to leave to market forces.

 

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Filed under Dairy Products, Farm, Milk quality, supermarket war and $1 milk

The new golden child in Australian dairy: corporate farming

TrafficJamLoRes

Australian dairy farmers have long been compared to our Kiwi big sisters.

You might imagine the comparisons would highlight the resilience of Aussie farmers who cope with much tougher climates (three weeks with scant rainfall is considered a drought in NZ) and less bountiful soils. But, sadly, no, it’s generally been along the lines of a disappointed parent.

“If only Australian dairy farmers were more like the Kiwis”.

But, as the cost of producing a litre of milk in the naturally blessed New Zealand has risen close to that of Australia, big sister has lost some of her charm. The new golden child is Big Brother: the corporate farmer.

The corporate farm is very attractive to everyone who describes themselves as “in agribusiness”. It borrows big, spends big, supplies big and is built on the promise of rivers of white gold that can be tapped by anyone with a spare dollar (whether or not they have an aversion to muddy boots). Freed from the constraints of traditional farming, they push the system hard for maximum shareholder return.

And, if it crashes, well, what the heck? It was worth a crack. The carcass is licked clean, everyone dusts themselves off and goes back to what they were doing before, digging up iron ore or whatever it takes to fund a spin on the roulette wheel.

Should we be concerned? Honestly, I’m not sure. If large dairy farms are held by patient investors, they can tick all the right boxes, since cow care, environmental responsibility and the welfare of workers all make business sense in the long term.

I just hope those lured by all the hype remember that dairy farming is a complex, volatile business and the returns may be neither instant or constant for, if it’s all about turning a quick buck, things can turn ugly very quickly indeed.

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Filed under Community, Farm

Fingerprinting a dairy cow

I hate paperwork with a passion but a little ink drawing on one archived oversize envelope had me leaning back in my chair, smiling. And here it is.

Cameo

You see, there was a time when my Dad didn’t pay much heed to details like ear tags. Every herd member was known by the spots on her hide. There was “Lipstick” and “Lipstick’s Daughter”, later joined by “Lipstick’s Granddaughter”. There was “Milk Jug” and, most infamously, even “Sicking Monster”.

And if there wasn’t a name for the cow, he seemed perpetually blessed with inspiration for a fresh christening. It was such a logical, foolproof identification system that Dad was always mystified when a family member failed to understand which cow needed to be drafted from the mob. “Sicking Monster”, for example, was obviously the young cow sporting a large irregular C-shaped black blob with another smaller blob near the opening of the C.

The day Dad drew Cameo began with a decree that dutiful daughter should retrieve three cows from the paddock. Following his post-milking nap, Dad was appalled to find only two cows in the yard. “What about Cameo?”

I’d spent a good half an hour trudging around the herd of 200 cows looking for an obvious Cameo and failed. What you see here is the documentary evidence of on-the-job training.

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Filed under Cows, Family and parenting, Farm