What’s going on with our weather: rotten Ridgy and silly Sam

FrostLoRes.jpg

Aaaa haah haah haaaaahhhhhhh! We’re only a handful of kilometres from the sea but, even here, dawn temperatures of -4 degrees Celsius are enough to test a Milk Maid’s mettle.

This morning’s frost was even heavier than yesterday. It’s a cold, dry winter.

FrozenRainGuage

But why is it so dry and cold even though the El Nino watch is now officially over? Well, as the Bureau explained in its Climate Influences report associated with the three-month outlook, there are two main problems aside from climate change:

“…the sub-tropical ridge over Australia shifted southwards, and the Southern Annular Mode—or SAM—forecast to be positive at least for much of July. When SAM is positive, the global belt of high pressure in the southern hemisphere mid-latitudes shifts southwards, pushing cold fronts and moisture to the south of Australia.”
– Bureau of Meteorology

Too technical? Whether you’re an old hand or new to all the meteorological jargon, the Climate Dogs videos explain it all beautifully in less than two minutes. Give them a go.

This wretched season is all down to rotten Ridgy and silly Sam playing up. With Sam not driving enough cold fronts up here from Antarctica and Ridgy doing his best to block them, we’re in a spot of bother with not enough moisture for clouds to make rain or blanket us at night. Now, if only we could take them to dog obedience class!

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.

 

The silver lining to the big dry

FloodJune14Std

I thought we’d “only” had 93mm but it was actually more like 144mm (that’s more than 5 and half inches) in three days. Normally, that would have been a massive disaster. Instead, it’s moderate flooding and, so long as the weather gods hold their tempers for a while, we’ll have dodged a bullet.

Such a relief.

I put our narrow escape down to the lingering effects of the exceptionally dry summer and autumn of 2012/13. While the pastures were green last week, you only had to dig down a few inches before the soil became very dry. The catchment sopped up most of this rain like a giant jade sponge before it got to the waterways.

The weather bureau is forecasting a warmer and wetter than average winter and although it has very little confidence in that seasonal rainfall outlook, the forecasters are actually very good at predicting temperatures. A warm winter would be welcome indeed. Fingers crossed!

A very special present from a dairy farmer’s son

Our new pastures were sown in the rain into lovely moist soil the first day after Easter. Nothing’s come up yet and although the farm is pretty green, it’s stopped raining! I can’t help checking in on the forecast every day hoping that a deluge is on its way.

Even one-year-old Alex seems to know how exciting a trip to a full rain gauge is during Autumn and, this afternoon, he arranged a special present for me.

"Mama! Mls!"

“Mama, Mama! Mils!”

Alex ran up with the “rain” he’d prepared, shouting “Mama, Mama, mills!”.

“How much?”

“Four!”

“Great work, Alex, keep it up!”

Our farm is rain-fed rather than irrigated and I must admit that I often look enviously across the valley towards neighbouring farms soaking in water during summer and critical times like these.

Typically, Aussie dairy farmers also daydream of the seemingly perfect New Zealand climate. While Australia’s dairy exports stagnated during our 12-year drought, Kiwi exports soared. This year is different. The Kiwis have had a drought of their own and without a grain industry to help them maintain their cows’ diets, milk production has plummeted.

It’s a cruel irony that the misery of our Kiwi counterparts has already begun to see the international milk prices rise and with it, our hopes for the next season.

Modern farming and nostalgia

Although I was just a tween during the 82/83 drought, I remember it vividly. That was the year the school bus was overwhelmed by a dust storm and the year my parents cancelled the newspaper deliveries just so they could be sure they’d saved every dollar they could.

It was also the first year we fed our cows grain and, gosh, it taught us a lot. Cleaning up, I stumbled across some notes written by my father’s farm consultant (and even a farm consultant was a new concept) that December:

“Feed grain, increasing slowly to 4kg, watching carefully for signs of grain poisoning.”

Grain poisoning is not funny but that little sentence make me laugh out loud. These days, cows start the season on 4kg, which is seen as pretty much a minimum supplement level, even in the flush of spring. No risk of grain poisoning there.

We manage dry spells so much better now than we did then and the cows, the farmers and even the environment are the winners. No longer are paddocks stripped bare, exposing the topsoil and all the life in it to the cruelties of the Australian summer. We graze just enough to keep the grass from becoming stalky.

This modern way of farming also means the pastures are quicker to respond to the rains when they do come. Just look at it.

Just add water...

Just add water…

Modern farming attracts plenty of critics but I think that, in many ways, the way we farm now would make our early environmentalists very proud indeed.

Hot milk

Remember yesterday’s 41 degree Celsius heat? Now, imagine you were standing outside in it being blasted by 250 1500-watt hair dryers. How do you feel now? Ready to do athletics?

Grazing the lush crop

Icy poles for cows

Believe it or not, each of our dairy cows gives off body heat equivalent to a 1500-watt hair dryer on a hot day. Yet, incredibly, each still made an average of 29 litres of milk for us yesterday. We nursed them through with some very careful planning based on the principles of the Cool Cows program.

  • Wayne got up an hour earlier to milk before the sun’s rays began to sting and milked two hours later than usual. This meant that the cows spent less time in the sun on the concrete yard waiting to be milked.
  • We hosed the whole yard down about 45 minutes before the afternoon milking. It’s amazing how much cooler the yard felt afterwards.
  • The yard sprinklers were activated as the cows came towards the yard. (You remember the fun of dancing through sprinklers on the lawn!)
  • The cows’ diet changed a little for the day. The cows got a little more grain, a little more green crop and a little less hay yesterday. It takes more energy to digest high-fibre foods, which adds to heat stress. Rather than feeding out the hay during the day, Wayne stayed up late and offered the cows a “night-cap” in the relative cool of the evening.
  • We chose the coolest paddock on the farm, ringed by the deep shade of mature willow trees.
  • On a hot day, dairy cows can slurp up a staggering 250 litres each. Our extra-large troughs ensured they had plenty of fresh, cool water to drink when they chose to emerge from their hideouts.

Poor girls. According to the Cool Cows program leader, Dr Steve Little, dairy cows start to seek out shade when it gets to about 25 degrees C. I think the farm’s cows, dogs and humans all felt the need to go into summer hibernation yesterday.

The dairy farmer’s calendar

Summer is the laziest time of year for a dairy farmer but when Wayne and I started writing a “to do” list yesterday, my head began to spin a little. Not satisfied with a mild head rush, I went on to draft a rough calendar:

The Annual Milk Maid’s To-Do List

Lazy Summer Days

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (pump breakdowns are popular this season)
  • Begin drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Make hay
  • Have we conserved enough fodder? Consider buying more
  • Begin feeding silage, crops and hay
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Control blackberries
  • Vaccinations, drenching, branding, preg testing
  • Big maintenance projects (the stuff you put off the rest of the year)
  • Dream of the next Great Leap Forward

Autumn Anxieties

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (milk quality issues popular this season)
  • Continue drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Special feeding regime for expectant cows
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Test soils for nutrient levels
  • Repair cow tracks
  • Sow new pastures
  • Fertilise pastures
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Chase revegetation grants and order trees
  • Maintenance
  • Still feeding silage and hay
  • Nude rain dancing in full swing

Winter Woes

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (calving emergencies popular this season)
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Fence and spray areas for revegetation
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Feed three groups of cows different rations
  • Mating program in full swing
  • Consider another drenching
  • Buy new gumboots and practise rain dancing in reverse
  • Redo budgets after milk factory announces opening price
  • Keep chin up

Supercharged Spring

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (unpredictable weather popular this season)
  • Train the new members of the herd
  • Visit the accountant (and maybe the banker)
  • Fertilise, fertilise, fertilise
  • Vaccinate and wean calves
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect the calf shed
  • Plant trees
  • Control thistles
  • Make silage
  • Sow summer crops
  • Make grass angels

I know I’ve missed stuff – lots of it – but it should give you an idea of what happens day-to-day and season-to-season on our very average Australian dairy farm. So, dear Reader, as we head into 2013, what do you want to know more about?

The morning after

I lay awake listening to rain on the roof and when dawn broke, this was the view that greeted Alex and me yesterday.

Flood June 4

No better than the day before – even the water troughs disappeared!

Wayne was in Melbourne, Zoe still curled up in bed. The cows were missing their milker, Clarkie, who was on the other side of the flood waters. Sticklers for routine, they’d started coming into the yard and would not be happy! As soon as Zoe woke, we packed breakfast and headed off in the car, looking for a way through.

Flooded road

The most likely option

I sat contemplating the water for a couple of minutes and turned back – not worth the risk. After about three-quarters of an hour of back road exploration, we made it to town! A quick call to Clarkie and he was on his way.

Yay! Our patience is rewarded![/caption]

The cows were milked a few hours late but everyone was safe and Zoe made it to school in time for morning tea. The rest of the day was spent hunkered down with farm consultant Matt, poring over spreadsheets, while Alex entertained us with his antics. The waters are still quite high today but this afternoon’s farm tour will reveal the extent of the damage.

All part of the thrills and spills of life on the land and I guess we had better get used to it – if the scientific community has it right, the climate rollercoaster will only get more and more “exciting”.

Just because I told you the climate was getting drier…

It must have been because I wrote about dry summers and autumns in my previous post – the weather gods have once again turned on the rain. Paddock 17 is today better known as “Lake 17”. Compare this pic taken this morning with the one I shot just a few days ago.

It’s nice to have the moisture but this much rain certainly calls a halt to our pasture renovation for now. I’m also wondering how many more times the 800 trees we planted in paddock 17 last October can cope with going underwater.

What a difference a few days make!

The same view just a few days ago