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 Butcherbird: the backyard bird horror motion picture

All this week, it’s been the same, terrible ordeal. I scurry from tree to tree, cowering under the spreading canopies of the golden ash flanking the driveway. And, every time, the Butcherbird comes.

As the folk at Birdlife Australia note:

“With its lovely, lilting song, the Grey Butcherbird may not seem to be a particularly intimidating species.”

“However, with its strong, hooked beak and its fierce stare, the Grey Butcherbird is not a bird to be messed with.

“When a nest or newly fledged chick is around, if you venture too close, a butcherbird will swoop by flying straight at your face, sometimes striking with enough force to draw blood, and each swoop is accompanied by a loud, maniacal cackle.”
Birdlife Australia

They’re not joking. Watch the video but don’t show the kids before bed.

Grey-Butcherbird-ge580-580x382

The Grey Butcherbird. Pic credit: Birdlife Australia

An aggressive hunter, the Butcherbird gets its name from a grisly habit of impaling or hanging prey in the fork of a tree. Add that to your list of scary Australian native animals!

There might just be one of those maniacal cacklers in your backyard, too. It’s one of the species that regularly makes the charts in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count, which runs from October 23 to 29.

Last year, the Rainbow Lorikeet, Noisy Miner and Australian Magpie topped the list of Australia’s most counted birds.

Of course, a farm is the biggest back yard of all. Thanks to a grant from the Norman Wettenhall Foundation the birds that visit our Land for Wildlife dam are regularly documented by local Landcarers.

It’s a fantastic list for one small part of the farm:

  Australasian Grebe   Australasian Shoveller   Australian Magpie
  Australian Pelican   Australian Shelduck Duck   Australian Wood Duck
  Black Swan   Black-fronted Plover   Blue-billed Duck
  Brown Thornbill   Cattle Egret   Chestnut Teal Duck
  Common Blackbird   Common Starling   Crimson Rosella
  Dusky Moorhen   Eastern Rosella   Eastern Yellow Robin
  Eurasian Coot   European Goldfinch   European Skylark
  Galah   Golden-headed Cisticole   Great (black) Cormorant
  Great Egret   Grey Butcherbird   Grey Fantail
  Grey Shrike-thrush   Grey Teal Duck   Hardhead (White-eyed) Duck
  Hoary-headed Grebe   Laughing Kookaburra   Little Black Cormorant
  Little Corella   Little Raven   Little Raven
  Magpie-lark   Masked Lapwing Plover   Musk Duck
  New Holland Honeyeater   Pacific (White-necked) Heron   Pacific Black Duck
  Purple Swamphen   Red Wattlebird   Red-browed Firetail
  Richard’s Pipit   Scarlet Robin   Silvereye
  Spotted Turtle Dove   Striated Pardalote   Sulphur-crested Cockatoo
  Superb Fairy-wren   Tree Martin   Welcome Swallow
  White-eared Honeyeater   White-faced Heron   Willie Wagtail
  Yellow-faced Honeyeater

Dam

You can get involved too!

The new, updated Aussie Bird Count app lets you get involved and track birds anywhere—not just in your backyard but on the farm, at the park or the beach.

Join the count at aussiebirdcount.org.au.

The national total will be updated in real time and the app allows you to see which species are being seen in your local area.

 

Predator to save farm dam from wombat

Meet the farm’s apex predator, Mimi.

DSC_6722

The face might not inspire shock and awe but I’m staking a hell of a lot on her fearsome faeces.

Earlier this week, I was dismayed to discover a wascally wombat is making a tunnel through the dam wall.

WombatHoleTrack

This is no ordinary dam. It’s a full-to-the-brim, 6-metre-high wall of water. The equivalent of 16 Olympic swimming pools, this is pretty much the only water you’ll find falling on the farm from New Year until Autumn. It’s the makings of the cows’ summer supper.

cropped-dam-1.jpg

So, with no time to spare, we need to convince Wally Wombat that this is a very poor location for his new holiday home.

I rang wombat rescue groups but none would take him away seeing as he’s not injured but all said the same thing: wombats are fussy. They don’t like wet burrows, stinky burrows or ones that might be visited by meat eaters.

So, armed with some fresh evidence of meat eating kindly donated by Mimi the monster, we bucketed in a predator’s calling card or two, followed by a few sloshings of muddy water for good measure.

Wombathole

Fingers crossed, Wally moves out of town before we need to call in the Sheriff.

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

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.

The kangaroos are winning but the Milkmaid is not ready to retreat

Triumphant return from border patrol

Triumphant return from border patrol

Can you see the triumph on the faces of the kids as the Bobcat pulled into the garage on Wednesday night? We’d been on our evening patrol of the new kangaroo fence and hadn’t seen a single kangaroo on the farm at dusk.

We have been pushing back the roos and wallabies in earnest now since Easter, training the mob of 300 or so that ravage our pastures to look elsewhere. It’s been an epic battle. I fill in a spot they’ve dug under the fence with a big log, they find a new path. I fill that in, they flatten themselves out a little more and squeeze in alongside the log.

The roos just extended their underpass after the first blockade

The roos just extended their underpass after the first blockade

More than three kilometres of The Roo Fence separates farm from forest and I’ve spent an average of an hour a day maintaining security.

It was with a warm inner glow of satisfaction that I embraced the chilly air at dusk on Thursday, finding the paddocks gloriously empty of roos and wallabies once more. A single roo hopped along the forest side of The Roo Fence looking for a way in, only to disappear again into the darkness of the forest.

And then, I turned the corner and was presented with a sickening sight. In the front paddock, closest to the road, the roos had discovered The End. The Roo Fence secures the farm on three sides and wraps around a little further onto the fourth, in a convincing show of its impregnable, endless nature. Or not.

Plucking up more courage than I thought possible, the roos had hopped right up to our neighbour’s house and simply turned the corner back into the farm. I counted 50 in one bunch and saw another two mobs equally as impressive, along with a small cluster brazenly grazing right at The End itself. At least 150 in the small front paddock, maybe more.

The light of day revealed a sorry picture. A clear track complete with roo fur on the wires confirmed that no amount of fence tweaking will do the trick. Only a Roo Fence visible from space will stop them now. Fear not, dear Reader, we will prevail!

At The End. See the track under the fence?

At The End. See the track under the fence?

50 shades of green in an electrifying Easter

The big ones who weren't scared of me this morning

The big ones who weren’t scared of me this morning

There’s nothing black and white about being a farmer like me; there are about 50 shades of green. For this greenie farmer has a big problem that is not widely appreciated outside farming circles and, in fact, denied altogether by greenies of a different shade. It’s a kangaroo problem.

The side of the farm that adjoins state forest hosts about 300 kangaroos and wallabies every day and they’re quite literally eating us out of house and home. Last year, we and the cows harvested around 10 tonnes of dry matter per hectare (DM/ha) on the non-forest side compared to just 5 tonnes DM/ha on the half of the farm that sits next to the forest. The bottom line: it’s not even paying its share of the mortgage.

How could a few hundred macropods make such a dent in the farm when researchers say they don’t compete with cattle? First of all, the research was done in semi-arid land, which is not comparable to dairy farm pasture.

Rye grass, the dominant dairy farm pasture species, is sweet, much lower in fibre and easy to snip off at ground level if you have upper and lower teeth. Cows don’t – they only have one set of teeth and wrap their tongues around the grass to eat it – which limits how short they can eat the grass.

Kangaroos and wallabies have wonderful teeth for eating really tough native grass that also make it possible to raze less fibrous grass to ground level, which is exactly what happens on our farm.

Macropod teeth are brilliant for snipping off every last blade of grass. Source: howstuffworks.com

You could host a lawn bowls championship on our pastures closest to the bush, year round. Rye grass just doesn’t cope with that kind of pressure. It needs rest time between grazings so it can replenish its energy stores enough to push out new leaves and grow healthy roots.

Just a couple of years ago, we discovered that not even a vigorous fast-growing crop like oats can outrun our kangaroo population.

Oats eaten by kangaroos

Oats eaten by kangaroos

Oats guarded by dogs unaffected by kangaroos

Oats guarded by dogs unaffected by kangaroos

So, what are our options? We got a licence to cull 40 kangaroos a year but never fired a shot. It would be like trying to push back the tide and I have no appetite for creeping around in the chilly dawn air with a gun every week. I find it gut-wrenching enough to euthanase a suffering creature, let alone stalking Skippy.

Next, I tried the great Maremma experiment. Charlie and Lola have turned out to be fantastic livestock guardians but they’re almost too good. When a threat approaches their calves, Lola stays with the poddies while Charlie ventures out to see whatever it is off the premises. They are effective for about a 50 metre radius of the calves but not hundreds of acres.

Charlie and Lola love their bovine friends

Charlie and Lola love their bovine friends

I even investigated spraying dingo urine around the boundary and all manner of sonic deterrents but found them either ineffective or impractical.

It’s come down to a cracking great electric fence. I’ve taken out a new mortgage to install it with real regret because we’ve had to remove trees to put it in and I know we’re committing ourselves to a lifetime of intensive maintenance.

The roo fence

The roo fence

The fence is only halfway around the boundary so far but I’ve already got a taste of what it takes to make it work. It will take more than one nasty shock to convince our visitors to dine elsewhere and kangaroos prefer to go under rather than over fences, so I have to keep the fence fired up all the way down to the wire that almost scrapes the ground. Longish green grass is enough to sap power from the system and have the roos squeezing under again.

I’ve spent a lot of time with my fence fault finder this Easter and I have a suspicion the fun is just beginning.

Good excuse for a walk

Good excuse for a walk

So, being an ethical farmer is not as clear-cut as you might think. If I carried on as we have been, we would be providing a great breeding ground for hundreds more roos than the bush can sustain and saved the felling of what I’m guessing was a thousand trees.

Building the fence means a more resilient farm that no longer relies on fodder bought in from across the state. It also means that I might finally be able to extend our program of planting 1000 trees a year to add to our 27 hectares of native forest on that side of the farm without the seedlings being wiped out.

Most importantly, if I am being honest, it secures the farm for our children. What would you do?

From the forest into light

From the forest into light