Skeletons in the dairy case

CowsDairyTrack

We know we are not perfect, we realise we must do better and we are proud of how far we have come.

Our cows live better lives than they did when I was a girl. Careful breeding has reduced the incidence of mastitis and lameness, while a new understanding of bovine nutrition has reduced the risk of calving trouble and helped us insulate the cows from the impact of both drought and flood. Our first generation of naturally polled (hornless) calves has just been born.

Even so, dairy farmers will one day earn a prime-time feature for all the wrong reasons. It could be someone doing the right thing that looks like the wrong thing: Continue reading

A Landcare foot soldier inspired by a true heroine

Alex's babies need watering twice a day

Alex’s babies need watering twice a day

Alex has 1000 babies that demand his tender ministrations twice a day. There must be scores more trailer-loads of trees like this getting twice-daily dousings across Victoria right now, judging by the frenzied timing of the government’s 2 Million Trees program.

We found out we were getting some trees three weeks ago after the local nursery confirmed it could provide stock that must normally be ordered nine months in advance. It wasn’t until two days before we collected them that we knew when they were coming or how many there would be. Crazy stuff!

Even more remarkable is the generosity of a lady named Kaye from our Landcare group. She raises thousands of seedlings every year for anybody who’s keen to get plants into the ground. Her garden is a wonderland of tubes sprouting everything from exquisitely delicate chocolate lilies through to one-day magnificent mannas. Continue reading

A lunchtime punt on the farm

What a wonderful day to go boating!

Unconventional boat launching, granted.

Unconventional boat launching, granted.

 

“Nice? It’s the only thing,” said the Water Rat solemnly, as he leaned forward for his stroke. “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

“Simply messing…about in boats — or with boats… In or out of ’em it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems to matter, that’s the charm of it. Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”

“Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand this morning, supposing we drop down the river together and have a long day of it?”
– Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Although my invitation for Wayne to unblock the effluent pond pipe was not quite so romantic as Ratty’s, it was a little more pressing.

All the manure that collects on the dairy yard while the cows are waiting to be milked is hosed away into ponds. This way, it can be reapplied to the paddocks where valuable nutrients are recycled rather than leaking into waterways.

Realizing we would run out of storage over winter, we had an extra pond excavated back in autumn. The system is now getting rather full but, still, the pipe from pond 2 to the new pond refuses to flow.

Damnation

Damnation: this should be a waterfall

We suspected the pipe was too long, buoyant and flexible, so the idea was to simply row in and saw some off. After a false start and some safety modifications (getting some hay band to stabilise the boat with an anchormaid) to the Good Ship Shi%, Wayne did just that.

Wayne wrestles with the Loch Macdonald monster

Wayne wrestles with the Loch Macdonald monster

The rotten thing still popped up defiantly above the surface. Another metre lopped off and it sank. Triumphantly, we waited for the water to flow. Nothing.

The next weapon in our armoury was a long piece of poly. Wayne thrust the two-inch down the throat of the pipe with all the courage of his Viking ancestors, daring a blockage to reveal itself. Four or five metres in – about where the two sections of pipe must join in the centre of the pond wall – it did.

Ah well, not every boating story has a happy ending, as Toad would attest. The next exciting episode will have to feature some serious yellow horsepower. Life on farm is never boring!

From soggy paddock to paradise

Can you spot two black swans and a flock of wood ducks and moorhens?

Can you spot two black swans and a flock of wood ducks and moorhens?

Stretching a temporary fence across an adjacent paddock in the warm winter sun, I was captivated by the scene through the tussocks. Two black swans were gliding across the water, a mob of moorhens were stretching their long orange legs, while a dozen or so wood ducks gathered a little way off.

It wasn’t always this way. This is, or was, paddock 17.  One of the lowest parts of the farm, paddock 17 was often under water and when we investigated the soil, we found it was a potential acid sulphate soil (PASS) with high levels of salinity. The safest thing to do was leave it alone, so we fenced it off and, one November, planted 800 moisture-loving plants with the help of a Landcare grant and the hard work of the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group volunteers.

The next two seasons were the wettest on record and I thought we’d lost the lot. We moved the fence out further and the Wellington Shire offered some extra money to replant the margins. Well, it’s all taken off – even some of the first plantings I’d given up on – and we now can boast a magical on-farm ephemeral wetland habitat.

Put yourself in the paddock with me for a few seconds and listen to this:

 

Why Landcare matters

It’s one of my earliest memories. Mum, Dad, my little brother and I took a tiny tree wrapped in paperbark down the paddock and planted it by the bank of the gully. It was a big affair that must have taken an hour by the time we got there, assembled the guard and wandered home again.

But that’s what “tree planting” meant back then and here is the very same tree today.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

A tree just about as old as the Milk Maid

Everything changed in my teenage years when we joined 20 or so of our neighbours to visit a nearby farm criss-crossed with healthy young stands of trees. John and Gayle had created an oasis on a windy flat. It was the first Landcare event I can remember and Dad and I came away totally inspired. He set about planting trees.

An aerial photo of the farm in 1994 shows young trees emerging around the dam but little else. It was still a blank canvas but there was a sniff of success.

The centre of the farm in 1994

The centre of the farm in 1994

Can you see a few trees along a rough line in the centre of the picture? It’s a denuded gully that now looks like this, thanks to Dad’s hard work and a Landcare grant that went towards his costs:

The gully 20 years later

The gully 20 years later

During my six-year-custodianship, we’ve planted nearly 10,000 trees and re-fenced our 11 hectares of forest with the help of Landcare, the local catchment management authority, the shire and Greening Australia. Although the funding sources are diverse, it’s all happened because of Landcare as the group acts like a triage service, matching funding sources with farm projects. The funding doesn’t cover everything but it does make it possible, especially with practical help from other Landcarers.

Landcare continues to inspire. In the last few years, our local Landcare group has created a grand vision that brings together the work of individual farms: creating wildlife corridors that stretch from the forest to the river to the foothills across farms, linking precious remnants to provide a network of habitats. And it’s working. Together, we can see that it’s not just our own farms that are changing, it is the entire landscape.

In this, the 25th Anniversary of Landcare, the Commission of Audit has recommended halving its funding – just as this powerful grass-roots volunteer movement has really begun to make a difference. Do you care? I do.

Bruce and Zoe planting in late October

Bruce and Zoe planting trees in October 2011

Progress: peeping through the same trees two and a half years later.

Progress: peeping through the same trees two and a half years later.

The faraway tree: our little piece of forest on the farm

From the forest into the light

From the forest into light

This has been a tedious morning of fence repairs – bending staples in decades-old wobbly hardwood posts and untangling cantankerous strands of barbed wire – so when we found a tree over the fence in the bush block, the kids and I broke it with a little “adventure”.

Inside our boundaries lies just 11 hectares of largely unremarkable bush. But it is a wonder, too, full of secret paths, dripping lichen and toadstools. After early hesitation, the kids relished their chance to explore this forgotten forest, darting here and there down the wallaby tracks, ducking under monstrous spider webs and peering into mysterious hidey-holes.

Days like this, it’s great to be a milk maid!

Instilling a love of nature the Brave New World way

When Alex found this gorgeous green grocer cicada, he was a little wary. But, of course, cicadas don’t bite – they’re sap suckers – so I encouraged our little people to have a really good look at the marvellous creature.

CicadaZoeGrinLoRes

Once Alex saw Big Sister having fun with the green grocer, he was more inclined to get into the act, beginning with a cautious stalking session.

CicadaStalking

Then, with some trepidation, he let it creep slowly across his fingers and was actually starting to enjoy the encounter when the impossible happened: the wretched winged wolf BIT him.

CicadaDrill

Alex’s hands shook and tears began to well but the green grocer clung on with all six hooks and the proboscis too! We finally flicked it off a little less carefully, I must admit, than I’d like.  Twenty minutes later, Little Man was off for his afternoon nap, only to wake with a “Cada hurting me, Mama!” nightmare.

So much for instilling a love of nature. More like a Brave New World conditioning session.

PS: If you were under the illusion that cicadas won’t hurt you, watch the reaction of this grown-up:

For our children

Have you seen this?

Yes, it’s by Unilever. Yes, you’re entitled to be cynical and yes, I love it.

The global manufacturer and ice-cream maker has just accredited Australian dairy production as meeting its Sustainable Agriculture Code – a huge accomplishment, which is also a world first. Of course it doesn’t mean Australian dairying is perfect and Dairy Australia has published a Sustainability Framework that will nudge us all to do better.

Here on the farm, our family does a bite-sized project for the environment every year. We have:

When I say “our family”, I have to stress that we haven’t been able to do all this without help. Grants from Landcare, Greening Australia and the Wellington Shire, work by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, together with the hard yakka of volunteers from the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group and some of our friends have made the tree planting possible.

It just goes to show what we can do when everyone pulls together.

Goanna

When even the paddock gets fleas

This November has been one out of the box: hail, bad hair and now, fleas.

The hail I didn’t photograph. The hair? I’ll let Alex show you:

MudDigger

The fleas? Today, I was out crawling around in the paddock (as you do on a sunny Saturday afternoon), when I discovered someone had been out to lunch on the juicy new rape salad I’ve been growing for summer.

Yikes, there are fleas in my salad!

Yikes, there are fleas in my salad!

This little fella is tiny (see those wriggly twig things on the top right? They’re rye grass roots) but he and all his lucerne flea mates are marauders with super powers. Think I’m drawing a long bow? Watch the video.

We’ll have to do something about these microscopic pole vaulters in the next few days or be left with a lot of explaining to do when the cows are looking for their New Year’s Day dinner.

Fleas are not the only pests on the extermination list this November. To my shame, we’ve been harbouring three minibus-sized box thorns since I took over the farm. A member of the nightshade family, African box thorns are classified noxious weeds and are really nasty. This year, I decided these taloned monsters had to go.

You'd measure these thorns in inches

You’d measure these thorns in inches

The box thorns were so big and brutal, the only way to get rid of them was with a 12-tonne excavator. It only took Michael the Man in the Machine a few hours to uproot and squash all three. All I had to do was light a match so Alex and I sallied forth, armed with three plump copies of The Weekly Times (one for each of the crumpled behemoths) and a box of redheads.

Little Man against the mountain

Little Man against the mountain

Oh, what a pathetic figure I’d cut as a smoker. All three editions of The Weekly Times were waged against the first monster before it finally roared into oblivion.

Ablaze at last

Ablaze at last

The ridding of another fearsomely armoured yet fleshy menace was less flashy but no less spectacular.

We got more help in, this time to face a battalion of variegated thistles. Newly renovated pastures had stirred seed banks and the wet paddocks had made early access impossible. The result was chest-high walls of thistles up to 100 metres long.

Within days of spraying, they began to take on glorious, tremendously satisfying tortured shapes. Revenge is best served cold indeed.

ThistleUturnFrontLoRes