What climate change means at farm level

A photo by Heather Downing of the kids and me out on the farm for the Earth Hour cookbook, which appeared in The Age today

When journalist from The Age Liam Mannix asked me how climate change was affecting our farm, the answer was: in every possible way, beginning with the circle of life.

When I was a girl, we used to get the ute, the tractor and our gumboots bogged every winter. It rained and rained and rained and rained and…you get the picture. Well, not any more. With the odd exception, the winters are warmer and drier these days. Boggings are a rare novelty for my kids.

This has some real benefits. Warmer, drier winters are much easier on the cows, calves and the grass. Much easier on us, too (plugging through deep mud in horizontal rain is character-building stuff)! We can grow a lot more grass in winter and that’s fantastic.

Less than fantastic are the changing shoulders of the season – sprummer and autumn. Spring can come to an abrupt halt very early in November these days and we often wait much longer into autumn for rain.

Every rain-fed farmer like me tries to match the cow’s natural lactation curve with the grass’s growth. In fact, the amount of grass the cows harvest is the number one predictor of dairy farm profitability. So, looking at the new growth patterns, we took the plunge a few years ago and shifted the circle of life to match. Now, calves begin to arrive in early May rather than mid-July.

Our decision is backed by hard data. Dairy guru, Neil Lane, has researched local statistics and found that farms just 10 minutes away have seen falls in production of 1 tonne of dry matter per hectare and increasing risk around late spring and autumn. On our 200 hectare farm, that’s 200 tonnes every year valued at roughly $300 per tonne we lose. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

But all is not lost. Dairy farmers are adapting at break-neck speed. We are on the cusp of breeding cows that are more resilient to heat and, in the meantime, have a very well-practised regimen to protect our cows from heat stress.

We are growing different pasture species like cocksfoot, tall fescue and prairie grass with deep root systems to tap into subsoil moisture. Planting at least 1000 trees per year creates micro climates that shelter both our animals and our pastures.

All of this makes practical, business sense and it also helps me feel better about our children’s futures. We are doing something!

That’s why I agreed to talk to The Age for this article and why we were happy to be featured in the Earth Hour cookbook.
It’s thrilling to see the great stuff farmers across Australia are doing in response to climate change. Now, if we can communicate that to foodies and the animal welfare movement, just imagine the possibilities.

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

Making the wet worthwhile

Not quite monsoon weather

Not quite monsoon weather

I’m writing this post hoping to be embarrassed by calling this a flop of a monsoon trough. Earlier in the week, we were promised 5 inches of rain by now but we’ve clocked up about a tenth of that in five days of drizzle with perhaps an inch or so supposedly delayed in traffic still to come.  Not that I would ever look a gift horse in the mouth, of course!

The gift of a good soaking in summer is precious indeed. We don’t irrigate here so rely totally on what falls from the heavens and our farm is set up to make every drop count. The silver lining of greater climate volatility is more summer downpours. We have sown deep-rooted perennial pastures, including the heat-loving tall fescue and cocksfoot, throughout the farm. These pastures respond almost instantly to rain in summer and increase our resilience to an increasingly tricky climate.

Bring it on!

On your marks for Spring on the farm

Spring starts tomorrow

Spring starts tomorrow


I’m excited. Fertiliser’s going on, calves are still being born and raised, almost all of the milkers are in and we are joining again with an eye to the next generation. The grass is growing a new leaf every seven days and, before we know it, the silage harvest will start.

This is the make or break time of year when everything has to be done right. Miss cutting a paddock of silage by a week and it could mean buying in expensive fodder later, miss a cow’s readiness to mate and it could cost you $250 in lost milk, miss a problem calving and it might cost a cow’s life.

All our skills are tested in Spring – from biology through to animal behaviour – so we need tools to help us.

We stick “scratchy tickets” on each cow’s back to make it easier to see when she’s ready to mate. Okay, she’s got no chance of winning the lottery but the silver coating of these stickers gets rubbed off when other cows leap onto her back in response to her hormonal cues, revealing hot pink, yellow or orange tell tales underneath.

The results of summertime soil tests and the advice of our agronomist allow us to maximise the performance of our pastures while minimising the impact on the environment.

Knowing when silage involves crawling around the paddocks keeping a close eye on grass growth, then entering the results into a clever little “Rotation Right” spreadsheet devised by our guru friends at DEPI.

But raising calves and watching over expectant cows? That’s a whole lot of tender care, time and generations of farming knowledge (yes, yes, combined with the latest advances in science).

This is when a farmer really knows she’s alive!

But we don’t get tornadoes in Gippsland

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
– Wizard of Oz

Hayshed gets a makeover

Hayshed gets a makeover

Our dairy farm now boasts a hay shed roof that spans 20 acres. Bits of it, anyway.

We knew yesterday’s winds were coming, so had shifted the cows, heifers and calves to shelter.

The calves big enough to be weaned in the next couple of weeks were bunkered down in the hay shed when Mother Nature began her renovation work. Thankfully, none of them or the Maremmas who live with them were injured.

Nor were any of the yearlings who could have escaped through crushed fences Alex and I discovered during “border patrol” this morning. We count ourselves very lucky.

Alex aboard the lazy milk maid's chainsaw

Alex aboard the lazy milk maid’s chainsaw

Hoarding hay while the sun shines at the solstice

June

On the first day of winter, I wrote about the threat of a super El Nino. Since then, the warning signs have faded although the Bureau of Meteorology still says there’s a 70 per cent chance of an El Nino developing later in the season.

This far into winter, it’s been a bumper. A “bumper winter” is traditionally an oxymoron but I have more grass now than in most autumns. Here we are at the winter solstice bathing in sun!

This morning's view across the swamp

This morning’s view across the swamp

It’s a chance to hoard the precious stocks of silage we conserved last spring. A deliciously dry, warm winter is often the silver lining to a desiccating dry summer.

DropletsOnWire

 

 

The farm on the first day of winter with a super El Nino on the way

On the first day of winter
On the first day of winter

 

“Monday morning feels so bad
Everybody seems to nag me
Comin’ Tuesday I’ll feel better
Even my old man looks good
Wednesday just won’t go
Thursday goes too slow
I’ve got Friday on my mind”

It’s winter’s first morning.  I’ve got spring and summer on my mind.
    The calves are arriving thick and fast now, with six healthy newborns yesterday. The days are a blur of hay, silage, calvings and colostrum but, mercifully, not mud. In fact, up until a week ago, the ground was so dry that the grass was growing at the same rate it does in summer – just one leaf per plant every 18 days.
     We’ve since had rain, with more forecast, and the grass has sprung into action again.  Winter’s shorter days, lack of sunlight and cooler soils will bring growth rates back again almost immediately – it’s one of Mother Nature’s few guarantees. Her moody El Ninos, however, are generally far less predictable but we’re being warned to prepare for one “out of the box” this year.
     All the tell-tale signs of an El Nino event are shaping up at a time when it would normally be far too early to forecast one of these protracted dry spells. So early, climate experts are predicting a Super El Nino. Drought with a capital “D”, the likes of which we haven’t seen since 1998, the hottest year on record.
     What am I doing to prepare? As little as possible; you won’t see me opening my cheque book again this season for anything other than the necessities.
     The truth is that we are already doing a lot to adapt to a drier climate: shifting the calving pattern, planting trees for shade and pasture shelter, sowing more resilient pasture species, reusing effluent and kitting out the dairy yard with sprinklers.
     Fingers crossed.

 

A month after the fires

The view from the house after the fire

The view from the house after the fire

One month and 30mm later

One month and 30mm later

Over there in the foothills, things are still tough. Stoic 84-year-old quarry-man, Jim, is still coming to terms with what he’s lost. Thankfully, his son and workers got out just in time but nearly a lifetime’s work went up in smoke that day.

Here on the other side of the valley, we’re just grateful to have been spared.

A couple of dumps of rain have brought summer (and the threat of fire) to an end and while the grass is yet to get moving, it is greening. Groups of cows are being sent on maternity leave, seed is being drilled into tired pastures and we’re cleaning out the calf shed again.

In five years, our little valley has seen fire twice, devastating floods, drought and plagues of grubs. It’s all a bit biblical.

“May you live in exciting times.”
– ancient Chinese curse

A brush with fire

DSCF3954

It’s all a little surreal. We are still being urged to take shelter from a fast-moving bushfire but the cows are in for the evening milking and the kids are watching Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom. Over a howling south-westerly, I can hear the thudding blades of water bombing helicopters.

All in all, it’s a miracle. After an anxious day spent with friends in town, I can breathe again.

The fires are only about 5kms away but they’re upwind. Just to be sure, the cars are still packed to the gills with our most precious belongings and every few minutes, I trot outside to survey the fire activity.

The cows spent the day in a closely grazed paddock with access to the river and will stay by the dam tonight, in case we lose power and can’t refill the troughs.

That south-westerly change was our salvation but we know it will have been someone else’s menace. Take care.

Dairy delight: silage supreme

The warm sweetness of fermented natural sugars swathed in the aroma of rich plum pudding make gourmet Silage Supreme irresistible.

Last weekend the conditions were perfect for the creation of a few thousand servings of this dairy delicacy.

Today, bunkered down in the office as water rattles down the drainpipes, I thought it was the ideal opportunity to relive the fleeting appearance of Spring by sharing the recipe with you.

So, next time you see cows eating “artificial, plastic food”, you’ll know the truth: it’s gorgeous, 100% pure luscious springtime grass lovingly preserved for a rainy day (or, perhaps, a scorcher).

Ah well, back to today…

WetHibiscus

WetOct