Category Archives: Pastures

Free range milk in Australia

jamieoliver

Jamie Oliver has a new cause – free range milk. Of course, his focus is on the UK but what about here?

There are housed dairy cows in Australia but I’ve never seen one because they’re very rare – so rare, I don’t even know how many hours I’d need to drive to show you one.

When we talk about the “cow shed” here, we mean the dairy. Aside from milking time, our cows spend their days out in the paddock grazing pasture and munching silage or summer crops.

Dairy cows are much more commonly housed in difficult climates. Teats exposed to snow in Europe or the USA can freeze, while cows exposed to desert heat in Saudi Arabia can die of heat exhaustion. Keeping cows indoors in those conditions not only makes sense, it’s the only humane thing to do.

There are some cases, though, where cows are kept permanently indoors, just to make the most milk possible. Advocates of housing say the cows live lives of luxury and are not forced to walk long distances and endure the discomfort of bad weather.

I’ve got some sympathy for those arguments. On the other hand, studies suggest that cows prefer access to pasture and then, there are videos like this one showing Dutch dairy cows being let outside for the first time after winter.

Really intensive farms are popping up around the globe where thousands – even tens of thousands of cows – are housed and milked up to four times per day.

I’ve never been to one of these places, so find it hard to pass judgement on them but it’s even harder to forget watching a cow leap for joy as she greets the great outdoors.

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Farm, Pastures

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

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Filed under Environment, Farm, Pastures

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

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Filed under Calves, Climate, Cows, Pastures

Cows are gentle herbivores, right?

I like to think I’m in charge around here but the truth is that I’m way down the pecking order. Mother Nature is Numero Uno, followed closely by the kids and the cows.

A couple of hours ago, I turned up to check whether the cows had enough feed for the rest of the day and this is the greeting I received:

I didn’t need to look at the pasture. I just did as I was told and stuck a prop up under the fence wire.

Don’t worry – they weren’t actually starving but had eaten the pasture out nicely, leaving the 4 to 6 cm residual we dairy farmers are drilled to achieve by our “Professor of Crapology” leading DEPI’s Feeding Pastures for Profit program.

Crapology is the study of cow poo. We need to be sure the cows haven’t eaten too close or too far from pats and conscientiously survey the consistency of their manure. Not too loose, not too firm, not too smelly and as little grain as possible in each gooey pie. “Just firm enough to stand your credit card up in it,” our farm consultant reminds me (and he wonders why I refuse to bring my purse on the farm tour).

Despite the protests, I think we got it pretty right but would you argue with a mob like that?

What kicked it all off: doing the Professor proud.

What kicked it all off: doing the Professor proud.

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Filed under Cows, Pastures

A slice of lime, anyone?

What is not rain, not sunshine, not bugs and not fertiliser but makes a Gippy milkmaid’s grass grow?

The great pyramid of Gippsland

The great pyramid of Gippsland

Lime! This is the first 30 tonne load of a 210 tonne order I placed the other day. High in calcium, lime helps to balance the natural acidity of our soils. Why does it matter? You can read all about it on a DEPI acid soil factsheet but here are the basics:

  • a low pH binds up the soil’s nutrients, making them less available to the plants
  • there’s a greater risk of manganese toxicity in acidic waterlogged soils
  • the nitrogen-fixing organisms in the soil suffer
  • plant roots become stunted in acidic conditions, making them more vulnerable to dry spells and root-eating pests
  • aluminium becomes more soluble and affects plant growth

Some of our paddocks are fine but others are desperately low, both in calcium and pH. Last year’s finances were just too tight to do much about it but, with a better milk price this year, I’m making up for lost ground.

It will take years to see any impact. In three applications over the last seven years, for example, we’ve spread a total of 7.5 tonnes/ha of lime on the paddock around the house because it’s one of the most acidic on the farm. Despite such a heavy dose of lime, we’ve only managed to lift the pH from 4.0 (that’s in CaCl2, not water, for the aficionados)  to 4.5, which still qualifies it as highly acidic.

Just goes to show that Giza wasn’t built in a day.

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Filed under Pastures

Feeling stressed? Come and sit in the grass with the cows

“What’s so special about that?” asked Zoe. “Nothing, and that’s why I thought we should put it on the blog.”

Apart from the twice-daily walk to and from the dairy, this is how our cows spend their time.

You won’t see footage like this anywhere else, I suspect, and certainly not on 4 Corners. There’s nothing sensational about it except perhaps that, right before your eyes, these cows are transforming grass into one of nature’s wonder foods (while wondering what the hell I’m doing sitting on their breakfast).

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Filed under Animal Health and Welfare, Cows, Pastures

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

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Filed under Climate, Cows, Pastures