Category Archives: Climate

Summer started this week

summer

The farm is cloaked in shades of green, the garden is a mess of dreamy flowers and the golden ash are just breaking into leaf.

I’m late planting trees this year, so they’re going where they’ll be watered by the irrigator. A good thing, too. The earth is firm underfoot and the plug of soil that my pogo-style tree planting tool pulls up is dry enough to crumble.

Yesterday’s weekly paddock walk showed dramatic changes in the pasture. Grass plants on the river flats each grew a new leaf in the last eight days but the slopes only put on half a leaf and the two north-facing slopes didn’t grow at all for the first time since autumn.

We missed out on promising rain from a storm yesterday and, with three hot days in a row on the forecast, I’m calling silage ’16 over.

While this season is so much better than last year’s, it has been tricky to make enough good silage and we’ve finished with less than half our normal total. Thankfully, we sensed it early and instead planted extra summer crops to reduce our reliance on conserved grass.

Aside from a couple of hiccups, the crops are looking good.

huntercroplores

“Hunter” forage brassicas almost ready to eat

And we’re more prepared than ever for the onset of dry weather. The new traveling irrigator we bought last year will use water from our dam together with recycled water and cow poo from the dairy runoff holding ponds.

There’s enough water and effluent to irrigate a small fraction of the farm, so we’re doing it strategically. We’ll keep high-value crops of turnips and millet growing through the first half of summer and leave enough water to get new pastures growing if there’s a false (or missing) autumn break.

dsc_32641

The new irrigator watering millet last summer

I’m always a little bit nervous when spring finishes. Have we made enough silage? Will we get through to next spring without buying hay?

With less silage than expected coupled with a milk price that won’t pay for hay, I’m jittery again but our cropping should make up for the silage shortfall and might even be better!

Whatever the outcome, our resilience to whacky seasons is growing and, along with it, my confidence as a farmer.

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Go home, Mother Nature, you’re drunk

WaterDryIn April and May, we were using the very last of our dam water in a desperate attempt to get grass out of the ground. Two weeks ago, we had floods and the cows missed two milkings, trapped on the flats despite valiant attempts to bring them home.

FloodJune22fjord

Then, just last week, we had snow.

SnowyHills

We even went up to the nearby hills so five-year-old Alex could see snow for the first time.

SnowAlex

It’s been a crazy year so far but I refuse to be cowed by mud.

mud

I’m celebrating the recharging of our dam for summer. It got very, very low but now is back.

DamSun

I’m also celebrating the snatch of spring we felt between the floods and the snow. With it came the magic of balloonists and their silks drifting across the river flats.

Most of all, it’s bringing the hope of a good season when we need it so desperately. We cannot afford to buy in hundreds of tonnes of hay again this year. A failed season like last year would spell disaster in the jaws of a crushingly low milk price. To survive, we need to grow more grass than ever.

Landgate’s Pastures from Space tool confirms it’s been a difficult start to the year, with pasture growth rates actually even worse than last year’s failure. The thick red line represents an average year, the blue one is last year and the black one is the year to date.

PasturesFromSpacePGR

The outcome is even more stark when you look at the cumulative amount of feed grown. Again, red is average, blue is last year and black is this year. Last year the farm grew half the amount of grass it grows in an average year and this year sits below even that low water mark – so far.

PasturesFromSpaceTDM

As you can see from the two charts, things need to get better, fast. I’m really optimistic that we are seeing a turnaround.

Up until now, the rain we’ve had has been simply replenishing the parched subsoil rather than growing much grass. It needs to happen because unless the subsoil is moist, the root zone dries out in the warmth of Spring as soon as there’s any halt in rainfall.

So, how is the soil moisture looking? Check out these Australian Landscape Water Balance charts. The first one shows just how recently the soil moisture in the root zone has returned to normal. This means that, finally, the grass can grow if there’s enough sun, nutrients and warmth.

AWAProotzone

The good news is that while the subsoil is not as wet as the root zone, it’s returned to about average. The one to watch still is the deep soil moisture, which as you can see from the chart below, still has a way to go.

AWAPdeep

Mother Nature may be behaving like a drunk but, while it’s raining, I’m not complaining.

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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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Fried pastures fry a farmer’s brain

The 5 o'clock swill

Feeding the cows will be a challenge this summer

The fear that steals alongside a horrifyingly dry season robs this farmer of more than dollars. Confusion as deep and disorienting as a thick Edinburgh fog sets in. I knew it was going to be dry, but this? This can’t happen. The brain moves into the basic fight or flight mode, making it harder than ever to manage the complexities of cow, climate, cashflow and crops.

In counterattack, I create spreadsheet after spreadsheet, recreating a standard season, adding a “drought factor” and checking, checking, checking.

Still, I find myself lying in the midnight darkness, chest tight, heart pounding loud over the silence of a sleeping household. Rolling numbers over in a head spinning with scenarios and doubts. Then scolding myself for my lack of serenity and self control, knowing that smart decisions can only be made on the back of a good night’s sleep. Deep breaths, think of our children’s sweet faces. Sink back into slumber.

The antidote is a committed plan. A meeting with the bank manager and a handshake with the hay man put me back on a more even keel. Once I’d said it all out loud, ordered an inconceivable amount of hay and arranged the extra mortgage, the fog began to lift. Yes, it will put us back eight years but the kids will barely notice. They won’t be sleeping rough or missing out on school excursions. We’re lucky, really, I tell myself.

I’ve drawn heavily on everything we’ve built over the past few years: the equity we’d slowly clawed back plus networks of farmer friends, advisors and financial whizzes. But a lot of people down here are not so well supported, including one young farmer who called today feeling overwhelmed and isolated. He takes some comfort when I tell him of my own sleepless nights.

Our silage contractor, Wayne Bowden, goes on ABC Radio a couple of days ago, explaining the situation. We’ve had about a tenth of our normal rainfall all spring and only 4 in 10 farmers are making any silage. Hay simply won’t happen. In the days since his interview, he’s been stopped in the street by several farmers grateful to hear that it’s not just them and to know that, at last, someone’s telling it as it is.

Dairy Australia’s Neil Lane says talking about the situation is critical.

“You need to answer two big questions: how much feed to I need to source and can I afford it?,” he says. “But don’t try to manage it all on your own,” he counsels. “Get onto Taking Stock, chat to people you trust like other farmers, factory field staff, consultants, agronomists, feed suppliers and go to your local discussion group.”

Still looking for more resources? Try the:
Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety (AgHealth Australia)
The National Centre for Farmer Health
Sustainable Farm Families
National Hay and Grain Report
Cool Cows

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When Spring doesn’t spring

Spring is the time of plenty and everything here is timed to match it.

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Young, innocent magpies sit for young scientists

Landcare swings into action on the farm

Landcare swings into action on the farm

And the grass grows like a weed, which we turn into silage for the cows to eat over summer and winter.
GrassAngels

But what happens when Mother Nature turns off the tap?

SoilMoistureSept

The sea of red shows just how dry it has become. Soil moisture levels are at historic lows in our part of Gippsland and farmers around here are struggling to get even small fractions of the normal silage yield tucked away for summer and next winter. We normally get around 800 rolls of silage to sustain the cows over summer and winter but may get 10% of that this year.

The man who cuts our Spring harvest describes the season as “bleak”, while our agronomist says most locals without irrigation “don’t know what to do” and are pinning their hopes on a November flood.

To be fair, we didn’t get so far into the red overnight. I saw it coming. We have been at rainfall decile 1 (out of 10) right through winter and it’s barely rained since. The blasts of heat we’ve had in the last couple of weeks were just the icing on the cake. It feels like drought. It measures up like drought, too.

Coping with El Nino
What have I done to prepare? First, we regretfully sold a lot of cows so there are fewer mouths to feed. Next, we planted turnips extra early on the river flats so they could get their roots down deep while there was still some moisture to support the seedlings.

Crops are sown so the cows will have lush green feed in summer

Crops sown so the cows will have some lush green feed in summer

Aside from this, I’ve been hammering the phone calling every man and his dog about securing large quantities of hay before it’s all gone while harassing pump, pipe and sprinkler people to get a little irrigation system up and going. If I have to talk about head, pressures and flow rates any longer, I think my own head will explode!

The system will mix water from our dam with the manure we collect from the dairy yard together to water a small crop of millet and chicory. It’s a great way to recycle the nutrients from the farm, protect our river and ocean, make the farm more resilient to climate change, offer the cows something green to eat and keep the milk flowing.

I haven’t done it all on my own because getting through a season like this demands a lot of expertise. I’ve been very lucky to have help from DEDTJR feed planning expert, Greg O’Brien, to model different scenarios and their financial impact on the farm as part of the Feeding Impact program.

The program provides a great framework for getting proactive about feeding decisions and brings farmers together to learn from each other. It’s great to know I’m not the only one in this position and I always marvel at just how generous groups of farmers can be with their moral support and advice.

Our nutrition consultant, Peter De Garis, and feed supplier, Jess May, have helped me create a balanced diet for the cows with not too much protein, too little energy and just the right amount of fibre.

Agronomist Scott Travers has offered his advice on the right type and timing of crops to keep feed up to the cows for the next few months. Fonterra irrigation and nutrient distribution advisor, John Kane, has kept me sane when assessing everything to do with pumps and pipes.

Farms like mine are small but very complex businesses. If I walk past you down the street looking a little distant and perplexed, you’ll know why.

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The calm before the perfect storm for one nervous dairy farmer

A perfect storm is brewing. Collapsing global dairy markets, a fodder shortage, and a strengthening El Nino.

Milk price uncertainty

Just across the ditch, NZ dairy farmers are drowning in despair after the dominant Kiwi milk processor, Fonterra, this week cut its farmgate price forecast to $3.85 per kilogram of milk solids, down from $5.25. The announcement followed hot on the heels of yet another set of disastrous Global Dairy Trade auction figures.

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

 

Most NZ milk is sold via the Global Dairy Trade auction and an article from Stuff.co.nz neatly explains the situation for NZ dairy farmers:

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said the news was grim, but not unexpected and many farmers would now be in survival mode.

The drop in milk price would result in $2.5 billion dropping out of rural economies, Mackle said. 

“Milk price is now half what it was in 2013/14. We calculate around nine out of 10 farmers will need to take on extra debt to keep going through some major operating losses,” Mackle said. 

“For the average farmer you are looking at covering a business loss of $260,000 to 280,000 this season but for many it will be a lot more than that.”

It would have a big impact on rural servicing businesses. Drops like this had a cascading effect through rural economies, Mackle said.

DairyNZ analysis showed the average farmer now needed a milk price of $5.40 to break even.

Just a few months ago, dairy industry analysts were forecasting a return to better international commodity prices at the end of this year but opinions seem to be changing, suggesting that there will be not one but two years of pain ahead.

What does this mean for Australian dairy farmers like me? Well, the largest processor of Australian milk, Murray Goulburn, forecast a closing (or end of year) price to farmers of $6.05kg of milk solids just before its partial ASX float. It hasn’t yet revised that closing price but its biggest competitor, Fonterra Australia, says it will announce the results of its own July price review this week.

The big difference between NZ dairy and Australian dairy is this: NZ exports 95% of the milk it produces, while Australia exports just 38% of its milk.  The Australian domestic milk market is much more stable than international commodity prices, so we don’t get the dramatic highs and lows of Kiwi farmgate milk prices. At least, that’s how it’s meant to work.

I’m certainly relieved to have locked in a bottom to the price we are paid for 70% of the farm’s milk. We now supply Fonterra Australia, which accepted our bid to join “The Range” risk management program that sees our price bob about between an upper and lower pair of prices. If the milk price does collapse, we’ll go backwards at a rate of knots but will still be farming next year.

El Nino: more feed needed and less to go round

Sadly, I can’t lock in even a portion of our rainfall. With a strengthening El Nino predicted to persist into next year, the Bureau of Meteorology calculates just a 30 to 35 per cent chance of at least average rainfall for our region from August to October. That means we’re likely to have less surplus Spring grass to conserve as hay and silage. It’s a double whammy because the El Nino also suggests we’re likely to need more fodder than normal over summer and autumn.

To top it off, hay prices are already unaffordable and quality hay is scarce.

The perfect storm

In other words, we’ll need more conserved feed than normal with less than usual to make ourselves and, very likely, starved of cash flow to pay for extra loads from far flung places.

A milk maid’s survival plan

So, what do we do? We’ve already begun adapting by selling off our less productive cows to limit our demand for feed. Thankfully, cattle prices are high right now and the sale of those 13 cows will feed the rest of the herd for three weeks. I’m also spending more time hunched in front of the computer looking for any opportunities to cut costs and keeping an eagle eye on our budget.

A brainstorming and planning session with agronomist, Scott Travers, has helped us plan for extra on-farm cropping with brassicas over summer.

Cows grazing forage rape

The cows will be grazing more brassicas this summer

We’ll be planting several types of brassicas (which belong to the same family as broccoli and cabbage) that mature at different times in a bid to have leafy greens available for the cows throughout summer. The big risk, however, is that the weather will be too tough, even for summer crops.

To deal with this, we are planning another infrastructure project inside the bounds of our new kangaroo fence. Water from our freshwater dam will be mixed with effluent from the dairy yard and pumped over the crop paddocks. It will help the brassicas survive a dry sprummer and summer then help re-establish pasture during an unreliable autumn.

This modest irrigation system will cost money but it will slash the cost of spreading the effluent and should pay for itself quite quickly during a year when visits from the hay truck could spell the difference between make or break.

A perfect storm is brewing and, here on the farm, we are trimming our sails to suit.

 

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Why I’m signing the Farmer’s Letter about climate change

The view from the house after the fire

The view from the house after the fire

Will you help me? Apparently, just before Australia goes to the Paris climate summit, proof is needed that real, live, everyday farmers want the government to do something about climate change.

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

“A cabal of regional and rural Liberal members, centred in Western Australia and supported by a number of conservative MPs, will force a vote at Saturday’s federal council meeting in Melbourne on whether Parliament should “examine the evidence” around climate change before agreeing to any post-2020 emissions cuts.”

“Liberal sources told Fairfax Media that Environment Minister Greg Hunt is likely to be forced to step in and fight off the motion on Saturday by asserting the Abbott government accepts climate change is real and is willing to work with other nations to combat its effects.”

So, to show that farmers who want action are more than a figment of a latte-sipping lefty’s imagination, I’ve signed The Farmers’ Letter, which says simply:

“Aussie farmers are on the front line of rising temperatures and more extreme weather, so global warming is a priority issue for rural, regional and remote Australia. An ambitious target to cut carbon pollution, a transition plan away from coal and gas towards renewable energy, and a strong deal at the UN climate talks in Paris this December are all in the interests of Aussie farmers and our families.”

Dozens of farmers from across the country are joining me and I hope you will too, so that, like the Whos from Whoville, we can prove that we exist.

Noise

Perhaps climate change shifts are especially obvious to dairy farmers because these days, everything on a dairy farm is measured to the nth degree. We can tell you how many days it took for the cows to get in calf, how much grass we grew this week and how many litres of milk were made in the last 12 hours.

It’s a fact that less milk is made from listless cows in a heatwave and the cost of a litre of milk skyrockets during drought, fire or flood. And the locals are worried. Just as Alex was about to be born, I joined a meeting of dairy farmers in town to discuss what we could do to adapt to climate change.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was that individual farmers were already doing so much and were so hungry for more information. Four years on and I think it’s all become just another part of the way we farm around here.

But if we are really going to pass the farm on to the kids in a better state than we found it, we’d better make sure we are heard on climate change. Please, if the thought of doing nothing doesn’t sit well with you, visit www.farmerletter.org and show them you’re for real.

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