Dear Prime Minister: practical farmers prepare

handheld tools hang on workbench

Time to get on the tools

Dear Prime Minister,

I know you’ve pledged to be practical about the drought. You know we farmers love everything practical.

Just as well. We know that if we didn’t maintain our gear, manage the land and look after our cows, stuff would be constantly breaking down. So, bothersome and costly as maintenance can be, we change the oil, repair the fences and attack the weeds.

Drought is little different: as you said, nobody can make it rain but, as bothersome and costly as preparation can be, we work really hard to prepare for its inevitable arrival.

We squirrel away feed and funds for the long dry spells, create microclimates with our Landcare brethren, and invest in the latest water-efficient technology, pastures and crops.

When El Nino unfolds and hangs on, we adjust both our herds and our bankers’ expectations, draw on those precious reserves, toughing it out until one of those thumping east coast lows heralds our salvation.

I was hoping you’d take a similar approach to drought and climate change. As bothersome and costly as action now on climate change might be, it’s our best bet to avoid these climate breakdowns becoming more and more regular.

Practical farmers prepare, Prime Minister. The climate needs a little TLC and you’re just the right man for the job.

 

 

 

Milk a microgrid

Copy of Chris Farm 9

There’s something interesting going on in the Latrobe Valley right now that I thought you ought to know about.

Local residents are being asked to sign up to a local energy feasibility study which, if it gets the go-ahead, will enable people with solar panels or wind turbines to sell any excess energy to others in their neighbourhood on their own terms – determining their own profits.

For dairy farmers, with lots of land and rooftops, it could provide another profitable income stream – not only saving energy costs but turning farms into profit-generating powerplants of the future.

To tell you more about it, here’s Belinda Kinkead, from the LO3 Energy team who are setting it up.

The Latrobe Valley project is such an exciting project for us because it is an opportunity for our technology to provide a significant and much-needed benefit to an entire industry.

We are working with Dairy Australia on this project and understand that reduced revenues are already making it hard to balance the books. We hear you.

Increasing running costs and greater weather unpredictability is only making it worse – and we were surprised to learn that, as a result, one in five dairy farmers are now preparing to quit.

But don’t quit just yet – because this could provide a way for you to turn things around.

It’s all about electricity.

You know better than me that dairy farming spends a lot of money on electricity. It’s used to run milking machines, pump water for irrigating fields, keeping milk chilled, heating water for cleaning equipment and providing light in the early morning hours.

And it’s expensive.

One case study showed a farm with 500 cows, 400 of which were milked twice daily, used 320 MWh of energy per year (875kWh per day). At an average cost of 25cents per kWh, that’s approximately $80,000 per annum[1].

But as farmers, you have extensive land and large areas of rooftops – perfect for solar panels or micro wind turbines.

Installing solar clearly has its benefits – it can reduce the amount of energy you have to buy from the grid, and any excess can be sold back to the grid.

Therein lies the problem. Right now, the only place to sell it is back to the grid, and it’s a closed market. There’s no price negotiation which means the return is usually in the retailers favour.

But, what if you could sell your unused energy to people in the local area – at a price they’re willing to pay? You reap the full benefit of the sale price of your energy.

For example (unless you were lucky enough to be an early solar uptaker) you would probably receive a feed in tariff of 10 – 15c/kWh[2] from your retailer. When you buy electricity from your retailer you would likely pay more than 35c/kWh at peak times, and more than 20c/kWh off-peak. That’s a significant gap.

There’s the prospect of a win-win where you can sell your excess generation to a neighbour for more than the feed in tariff, and they can buy electricity from you for less than the retail price. There are also other benefits associated with keeping your energy spend within your community – supporting local businesses and local jobs.

That’s the idea behind the Latrobe Valley Microgrid, a local energy market place.

It sounds complicated, but actually, it’s simple, and it’s proven – we’ve been running one in Brooklyn, New York for two years and the locals love it.

You might like to know that we have also partnered with SMF, and through the local councils, offer a financing option (Environmental Upgrade Agreement) that could ease your cashflow concerns for solar installations.

Everywhere in the world, technology and the sharing economy is changing business models – from Airbnb to Uber.

Adapting for the future is essential – and this really does make sense.

So if you’re looking to add additional revenue streams into your farm, take a look at what could be the solution. It’s all laid out on www.LatrobeValley.Energy

You can help make it a reality by taking part in the project. Join our feasibility study now. It doesn’t cost anything, we just need your consent to use your energy usage data on an anonymous basis to model the cost/benefits for the project. The more data we get, the more precise the results. Get online and register www.LatrobeValley.Energy.

[1] http://www.aginnovators.org/initiatives/energy/case-studies/energy-efficiency-supports-viability-family-run-dairy-near-wagga-wagga

[2] VIC minimum tariff for 2018/19 is currently 9.9c/kWh (https://www.energy.vic.gov.au/renewable-energy/victorian-feed-in-tariff)

The Aussie dairy carbon hoofprint

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Something of a wet blanket was thrown over the World Milk Day celebrations last week in the form of a story in The Guardian and on the ABC about dairy’s carbon footprint.

Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet.
– The Guardian, June 1 2018

The story was based on a study published in the journal Science that was based on almost 40,000 farms in 119 countries.

Being something of a “greenie” myself, I know how much emissions vary depending on how we farm and that was reinforced by a chart in The Guardian’s story. The lightest cheese footprint really is quite light! But where does Aussie dairy sit in the spectrum?

GuardianChart

To learn more, I asked Catherine Phelps of Dairy Australia for answers. Thank you, Cathy, for these incredibly comprehensive answers!

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MMM: How much does the farm gate carbon footprint for dairy vary around the world?
CP: There is a wide variation in the carbon footprint for dairy.

A 2010 study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHG) from the Dairy Sector (2010) reported the highest emissions of about 7.5kg carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of fat and protein corrected milk (FPCM) for sub-Saharan Africa.

The developed regions of the world had the lowest footprints of 1 – 2 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent per kg of FPCM. Asia, North Africa and South America have intermediate levels of emissions.

The Australian dairy industry 2010 carbon footprint study of farm gate GHG emissions reported the average GHG emissions to be 1.1kg of carbon dioxide per kg of FPCM. Per unit of production Australian dairy producers have one of the lowest carbon footprints in the world.

MMM: Why is there such a variation?
CP: Differences in carbon footprints are usually related to the efficiency of the production system, cow genotypes and the quality of the forage.

In arid or humid zones where producers are reliant on native grassland, the quality of the feed is poor and milk production per cow is low. The genotype of dairy breeds best suited to poor quality feed and/or high temperature and humidity is often adversely correlated with milk production efficiency.

The majority of GHG emissions from Australian dairy production systems are methane from enteric fermentation (57%); followed by methane and nitrous oxide from urine and dung (18%).

MMM: What have Australian dairy farmers done to reduce their carbon footprint and how has it changed over time?
CP: Between 1980 and 2010, the Australian dairy industry reduced its carbon footprint per kg of FPCM by 30%.

This reduction is due to improved production efficiencies, examples being better quality pasture and selection of higher genetic merit cows. Enteric methane emissions represent energy losses from the digestive process. Improving feed quality, breeding animals with increased feed conversion efficiency and use of specialist feed additives reduces the amount of energy lost as enteric methane.

Increased adoption of good practice manure and nitrogen fertiliser management is also contributing to the lower carbon footprint.

MMM: Does combining animal farming and cropping have any environmental benefits?
CP: This is not an easy question to answer. The practices implemented by an individual producer are often more important than their type of farming system with respect to environmental impacts.

The argument for mixed farming over specialised livestock or cropping systems is usually based on the assumption that animals can utilise cropping waste, or take advantage of grazing cereals with the outcome being greater productivity per unit of land. In addition, animals contribute nutrients to the soil through manure and pasture can act as a disease break crop and/or soil conditioner.

Whether a mixed farming system is more environmentally beneficial will depend on the management practices being implemented. For example, a zero tillage cropping system may have less impact on water quality and soil health than a mixed farming system with a high proportion of conventional cropping.

A different approach is to identify practices which boost productivity whilst reducing environmental impacts. Some of these will be common across farming systems, others will be relevant to a particular system and its location. For example using a nutrient management plan to inform fertiliser/manure applications and identify and remediate soil constraints will improve soil health and farm profit whilst reducing the risk of nutrient loss regardless of the farming system.

MMM: If Australians adopted a vegan diet, what difference would that make to the area of land needed to sustain us?
CP: Recent research based on the Dutch diet reported carbon emissions could be reduced by approximately 2.9 tonnes/person by eating vegan. However the nutrients lost by avoided animal products would need to be compensated by plant-based products. To obtain the nutrients provided by dairy an individual must eat more fruit and vegetables than the recommended daily portions.

The same research estimated the amount of land needed to produce the extra plant food is equal to the land used by dairy. The carbon emissions from the extra food were similar to dairy. Similar research has not been conducted in Australia.

A US study found the removal of animals from the agricultural system resulted in diets with excess energy that were deficient in essential nutrients. There was potentially a decrease in the area of land required, however to support the nutritional needs of the US population nutritional supplements would be required.

The outcome determined that is a challenge to scale up plant-based diets to meet the nutrient needs of whole populations, due to land availability, soil type and climate.

MMM: Aside from eliminating animal foods, what are the implications of a vegan diet and lifestyle?
CP: When considering the environmental impact of various agricultural products it is important to consider the full nutritional value delivered by different foods. Multiple research papers have found that whilst it is possible to meet essential nutrient requirements through vegan diets this can be a challenge in reality.

Without careful balancing such diets are likely to be deficient in various micro-nutrients and fatty acids including calcium, vitamin A, Vitamin B12 and vitamin D. These nutrient deficiencies can be difficult to manage at a population level. Products like dairy are nutrient dense and an excellent source of many essential micro-nutrients and fatty acids.

There are alternative lifestyle options for reducing individual greenhouse gas emissions that don’t involve a significant change in diet.

For example driving a smaller car, reducing air travel, or sequestering carbon by planting more trees. A passenger on a return flight from Melbourne to London return will be responsible for producing approximately 11.2 tonnes of carbon emissions (https://www.treesforlife.org.au/carbon/calculate-your-impact/ready-use-calculations).

Planting five trees will sequester one tonne of carbon.

person s left hand holding green leaf plant

Photo by Alena Koval on Pexels.com

On tomorrow in Yarram: practical help to future-proof the farm

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The days are rapidly getting shorter but the autumn break remains missing in action. That’s not terribly unusual around here – it has always been fickle – but it’s also very dry.

And, apart from those December downpours, it’s been very dry for a long time. There’s really nothing left in the soil but grass-seed-eating crickets. It’s a tricky time.

Do you sow new pastures now and hope a meaty autumn break (rather than one of those fizzer false starts) arrives in time to sustain the seedlings or do you delay until you’re absolutely sure, only to run out of growing time before winter?

Aaargh! It’s a race where thousands of dollars ride on backing the right horse. This kind of unpredictability makes farming risky (and expensive), not just for dairy farmers but cockies of every creed and commodity.

You need experience, expertise and a bit of luck to get it right.

Tomorrow: lunch with the climate, weather and farming experts for some great ideas

Farmers for Climate Action with the support of the Gardiner Foundation and the FRRR is bringing some insights from experts to town tomorrow to help us manage the shifting seasons.

Dr Luke Shelley from the Bureau of Meteorology’s Agriculture Program will present on the applying seasonal forecasting tools and long-term climate projections to farm decisions.

Ms Catherine Phelps, Dairy Australia’s Program Leader for Land, Water and Carbon will offer tactics and strategies for managing dairy businesses facing climate variability and long-term risks.

I’ll be going and, whether you’re dairying, beef, sheep or any other type of farmer, you’re welcome to come along too (they’re even laying on lunch at the Club Hotel).

Ring Corey Watts at Australian Farmers for Climate Action on 0428 000 037 or email: vic@farmersforclimateaction.org.au to reserve your spot!

Time to stand up for rural Australia

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.

– excerpt from “My Country” by Dorothea Mackellar

Dorothea Mackellar was too polite. When it comes to Australia’s fickle seasons, Mother Nature has always had a crabby streak but, these days, the old hag has become nothing short of vicious.

Maybe we’re partly to blame for relentlessly blowing our own foul emissions up her skirts. Whatever the cause, things have changed. This is different. And while I like to think of myself as a resourceful and resilient (aka “bloody stubborn”) type, this is too big to go it alone. We need to work together.

That’s why I joined Farmers for Climate Action and agreed to face the cameras for this ad, which went live last night.

Thousands of Australians are backing Farmers for Climate Action. Will you join us to help stand up for rural Australia?

 

 

 

 

Nightmare November, divine December?

With about half the normal rainfall in October and about a third of normal in November,  the silage harvest was, well, wanting.

NovRainfall

We’d barely gotten the last bale off the paddocks when, one Tuesday morning, Clarky sounded the alarm.

“You’d better get Marian straight down to paddock 19 to have a look,” he said.

Now, Clarky is the king of the understatement. Nothing from snake to bushfire seems to rattle the fellow so, when, he said, “straight down”,  I dropped everything to investigate.

It was an invasion. Marching from west to east were legions of centimetre-long army worms.

Army wormsSquare

A few of the voracious Army Worm larvae

Army worms are as destructive as a team of teenage footy players on grand final night. They descend en masse and literally eat everything in sight.

They weren’t anywhere to be seen the day before and were suddenly in plague proportions, crawling across the track, aloft on ryegrass stalks, wriggling along the rim of the trough.

A careful inspection of the paddocks revealed a heavy infestation from boundary to boundary. The choice was stark: spray or pray.

After a sub-par Spring, this was the last thing we needed. The caterpillars would very likely leave nothing for the cows to graze. On the other hand, spray is the method of last resort.

As the sun moves overhead, army worms retreat to the cool spaces at the base of the pasture, unseen and untouchable. Spraying has to be done at dawn or dusk and the chemicals are nasty, killing pretty much every living thing – good and bad – they touch.

We may not have an organic farm but we don’t like pesticides. It’s much better to let the beneficial insects, like the beautiful Glossy Shield Bug identified for me on Twitter by Dr Manu Saunders (@ManuSaunders), keep the nasties in check.

ShieldBug

Juvenile glossy shield bug (Cermatulus nasalis)

But when you have a plague like this following a Spring drought and a forecast game-changing big rain is on the way?

The Department of Ag reckons “spraying is recommended when the density of larvae exceeds 1 to 3 larvae per square metre”. That made me giggle nervously, given our infestation of “too many to count” per square metre. Reluctantly, yet desperately, I put in the call and quarantined the cows in a separate section of the farm.

Four weeks on and the worms have all but disappeared, continuing to flourish in just a couple of paddocks where excess leaf litter provided cover.

When the drenching December rain came, I was grateful I’d taken this path. With the army worms vanquished and drought broken, the cows were free to graze lush grass again.

While I hate using pesticides, I have a sneaking suspicion I’d better get used to it.

The Department notes:

“Major outbreaks occasionally occur across Victoria, particularly after periods of drought. There are many factors which may lead to an outbreak. They may arise from large invasions of moths which have bred in arid regions of New South Wales, South Australia or western Queensland. Alternatively, they may arise because of significantly less mortality of eggs and young caterpillars. Droughts appear to trigger outbreaks because of the adverse effects they have on the natural enemies of armyworms; these predators and parasites are much slower in recovering from a drought than are armyworms.”

As the climate becomes more volatile, we can expect wild swings in bug populations, too. Sorry, Tony, it’s not beneficial but, yes, I guess it’s just part of farming.

The most crucial few weeks of the farming year

SilageRun

I must confess I am one of those farmers rarely content with the weather.

Still, if I am honest, there are just two key events when the weather simply must be delivered as ordered. Right time, right place, right quantity, thank you very much.

There’s autumn, when we hold our breaths listening for rain as delicate new pastures send down roots for a foothold in the soils before the cool sets in.

Then, again, in the few weeks from September to November when, like frenzied squirrels rolling giant balls of sweet silage, we hope to hoard enough feed to carry the cows through the lean summer and winter months.

These 12 weeks are the sweet spot for growing grass – enough sunlight to power photosynthesis but not too much heat to stress it.

PastureGrowth

If we’re punished at these critical times, the effects ripple through an entire year. It’s enough to tempt even the most laid-back farmer to sacrifice a few goats to appease the volcano gods.

So here we are, right in the thick of it and tracking well above the average for our farm.

Last Saturday marked a minor turning point. While an iced-coffee powered Wayne carted in newly wrapped silage rolls from the paddock, the kids and I lit our final bonfire on the eve of fire restrictions and set the irrigator spinning for the first time since autumn.

Bonfire

It’s a fragile, fleeting and uncertain time of plenty.

The storms promising 10mm or more delivered a paltry 1.5mm.

understatedrain

Does it look more impressive if I tip it sideways?

It’s been a while between drinks now and if we don’t get a big rain, pronto, the annual silage harvest will not provide the buffer we need. The forecasters seem unable to agree on what the next eight days will bring.

Que sera sera. I guess.

The farmers I meet who’ve stood the test of time are generally great philosophers. They don’t scare easily and seem to simply roll with the punches.

I’m coaching myself to do the same but it doesn’t mean forgetting about a back-up plan. I put my hand up months ago to buy some silage before it was even grown. That decision could turn out to be costly if the rains come but, right now, it feels like good insurance.

There’s a spring back in my step

PrairieGrass

How things have changed. The pastures are finally no longer moisture stressed and neither am I.

In a wintry week that’s likely to see snow carpet our sky line, I’m grateful for hope. The idea of another desolate season on top of 2015 and the corrosive dairy crisis had me all jittery in July.

August pretty much turned things around and the whipping rains in this, the first week of Spring, are welcome. The cows really don’t mind the cold – anything above 18 degrees Celsius is getting warm for them.

We still need a lot more rain. The dam has about a metre to go before it fills and the soils aren’t likely to make it in time for summer.

Soil moisture maps show that the root zone, which is classified as the top metre of the soil profile, remains much drier than usual.

This means that if there are lulls in the rain during the warmer Spring months, it won’t take long at all for the pastures to become stressed and slow their growth.

On the bright side, the Bureau’s three-month outlook has changed remarkably. There had been a low chance of average rainfall during Spring but, now, we have an even chance.

We’ve already locked in some standing silage and hay purchases but this more positive outlook means I won’t be on the hunt for more just yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that enough rain falls at the right time to get a good harvest of our own.

In the meantime, we’re keeping the paddocks well fertilised and grazing them to the perfect length to maximise their yields.

Unlike some dairy farmers, we graze according to leaf stage rather than the weight of grass in the paddocks. The kids and I count the leaves on a weekly “farm tour”.

Each plant can grow three leaves before dropping the first one. At the same time, each leaf is larger than the one before it. That means our aim is to let the cows into the paddock right when the grass plants have between 2.5 and three leaves each – the maximum amount of juicy new leaf matter and the minimum amount of waste.

Depending on the variety, this can look very different. Check out these two paddocks. Both were at two leaf stage and photographed this weekend, using my glamorous gumboot as a height indicator.

2leavesPRGlores

VS.

2leavesARG

Obviously, the second one looks the winner! But of course, it’s not quite that simple (it never is in farming!).

Number 2 is an an annual rye grass, which means it will need to be resown next autumn, whereas number 1 is a perennial rye grass, which should offer up to a decade of faithful service, in the absence of flood, fire and pestilence.

Each time we resow it costs money, adds an element of risk and disturbs the soil, potentially damaging its structure and the good bugs within it.

Also in the perennials’ favour is the flush of “All my Christmases have come at once” growth a sneaky summer thunderstorm can bring long after the annuals have given up the ghost.

So, you see, it’s all a bit of a balancing act. We use these flashy annuals as part of a renovation program. When a perennial is past its best and needs replacing, we spray it out in late Spring, plant a summer crop like millet or a brassica for the cows to graze when nothing else will grow, followed by an annual rye grass, another summer crop and then back to a perennial.

This program allows us to eliminate as many weeds as possible, get lime incorporated deep into the root zone and lift fertility, too.

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Delicious summer crop

Nothing’s assured in farming but the tide finally seems to be turning in our favour.

What’s going on with our weather: rotten Ridgy and silly Sam

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Aaaa haah haah haaaaahhhhhhh! We’re only a handful of kilometres from the sea but, even here, dawn temperatures of -4 degrees Celsius are enough to test a Milk Maid’s mettle.

This morning’s frost was even heavier than yesterday. It’s a cold, dry winter.

FrozenRainGuage

But why is it so dry and cold even though the El Nino watch is now officially over? Well, as the Bureau explained in its Climate Influences report associated with the three-month outlook, there are two main problems aside from climate change:

“…the sub-tropical ridge over Australia shifted southwards, and the Southern Annular Mode—or SAM—forecast to be positive at least for much of July. When SAM is positive, the global belt of high pressure in the southern hemisphere mid-latitudes shifts southwards, pushing cold fronts and moisture to the south of Australia.”
– Bureau of Meteorology

Too technical? Whether you’re an old hand or new to all the meteorological jargon, the Climate Dogs videos explain it all beautifully in less than two minutes. Give them a go.

This wretched season is all down to rotten Ridgy and silly Sam playing up. With Sam not driving enough cold fronts up here from Antarctica and Ridgy doing his best to block them, we’re in a spot of bother with not enough moisture for clouds to make rain or blanket us at night. Now, if only we could take them to dog obedience class!

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.

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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.