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.

huntercroplores

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

FrostLoRes.jpg

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.

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.

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.

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.