Time to wisen up on water

When it comes to survival here on the farm, the three things with the potential to make or break are:

  1. Our health
  2. Mother Nature
  3. The milk price

I only truly understood the health thing and the worst possible price scenario last year but Mother Nature has been playing me like a marionette since the day I took the reins. Just take a look at this mess:

Pasture growth rate (tDM/day)

Pasture growth rate (kgDM/day)

If it looks too technical, don’t worry, it’s just a graph showing how fast the grass can grow by mapping its production over the last 14 years.

As you can see, from May to August the growth rate is consistently low, irrespective of what falls from the sky. I guess the days are just too short to grow a lot.

Come September, the grass begins to take off. After that, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen but that’s when – if there’s enough soil moisture – we harvest the grass we need to feed the cows over summer and winter.

Make or break hinges on reliable water during 12 critical weeks of the year from October to December.

So, while this is the time we need it to rain the most, it’s also the time where the whole thing can shut down. Like it did in 2015.

pfs2015

Right when we should have been turning waves of excess grass into silage, we began feeding the cows to make up for bare pasture. It was a financial and emotional disaster. I found myself suffering panic attacks as I stood in the browning paddocks.

The models show that, in an average year, we can grow 13,432 kilograms of feed per hectare, while in a good year like 2011, we can grow 19,068. In 2015, we could manage just 6,279kg/ha. That’s less than half the average or a mere third of a good year’s growth.

On a 200-hectare farm, that’s a loss of 1430 tonnes of feed valued at, let’s say, $280 per tonne to replace. It adds up to a $400,000 feed deficit. Enough to send me scurrying off to the bank for a new mortgage.

pfstdm

Desperation is the mother of innovation
Thanks to the unquenchable thirst of the resources sector and some rather curious water policies, we are locked out of tapping into the vast aquifer under the farm.

Nonetheless, we do have some water in a farm dam and the dairy effluent ponds. Last summer, we installed a small irrigation system to get that precious water onto the paddocks.

It’s enough to properly water a fraction of the farm during those 12 weeks, so we’re keen to maximise its value, watering only the most water efficient crops.

What we’re learning fast is that, unlike rye grass, which shuts down in the heat, millet luuuurves a heatwave, so long as it has enough moisture. Our experience has been supported by new Australian research, which shows that millet is almost three times more water efficient than rye grass.

There are other benefits, too. Unlike brassicas, which invite repeated attacks by every bug under the sun from mites to moths, millet is pretty much indestructible. And, unlike sorghum, which can be toxic if fed too early, it’s safe for everything from calves to milkers.

Contrary to the traditional wisdom that you can’t milk off millet, you can, so long as you graze it when it’s short. Just like any grass, it gets too fibrous when it’s long and loses quality. Because it can grow visibly in 24 hours under the right conditions, that means you need to graze it often. Not a bad problem to have in my book!

Expect to see more millet planted here to make the best use of every drop of water we can offer, especially as climate change makes the seasons less and less reliable. Now, if only we could get access to that aquifer…

Left behind in the dust

The farm in February

Still looking green

It’s at this time of year that three distinct classes amongst dairy farmers around here become clear for all to see: the lax, the leaf counters and the irrigators.

The beautiful green pasture seen from our verandah is something of an illusion. Take a closer look and it’s sparser than it was just a few weeks ago when we were squirelling away silage. More importantly, it’s growing at about a third of the speed. In contrast, the irrigators are powering along, growing feed as fast as ever.

Why don’t I irrigate then, you ask? Because I cannot. There is an indefinite moratorium on new irrigation licences for the aquifer that flows beneath our farm because it is dropping unsustainably. According to a report by the Department of Sustainability and Environment:

“Levels of groundwater extraction from the Latrobe Aquifer, in Gippsland, are well in excess of annual recharge. Monitoring of groundwater levels indicates that, as a result, there has been a regional decline of approximately 1 metre per year over the last 30 years (SKM, 2004). It is forecast that this rate of decline will continue for at least the next thirty years.”

Ironically, that’s not because too much water is being used by farmers.

“Whilst detailed estimates vary, the proportions extracted by different users are estimated to fall into three broad categories (Hatton, 2004, Fig. 1):

  • 85,000 ML from oil and gas production in the Bass Strait;
  • 25,000 ML for coal mine stability purposes in the Latrobe Valley; and
  • 10,000 ML for irrigation and industrial purposes…”

 

Other potential impacts of the coal, oil and gas production are alarming. The report discusses potential land subsidence, sea water intrusion, reduced stream flow and running out of groundwater altogether.

The Australian and Victorian governments have established multi-million dollar assistance packages for irrigators but the rest of the community appears to have been left high and dry.