Dear Prime Minister: practical farmers prepare

handheld tools hang on workbench

Time to get on the tools

Dear Prime Minister,

I know you’ve pledged to be practical about the drought. You know we farmers love everything practical.

Just as well. We know that if we didn’t maintain our gear, manage the land and look after our cows, stuff would be constantly breaking down. So, bothersome and costly as maintenance can be, we change the oil, repair the fences and attack the weeds.

Drought is little different: as you said, nobody can make it rain but, as bothersome and costly as preparation can be, we work really hard to prepare for its inevitable arrival.

We squirrel away feed and funds for the long dry spells, create microclimates with our Landcare brethren, and invest in the latest water-efficient technology, pastures and crops.

When El Nino unfolds and hangs on, we adjust both our herds and our bankers’ expectations, draw on those precious reserves, toughing it out until one of those thumping east coast lows heralds our salvation.

I was hoping you’d take a similar approach to drought and climate change. As bothersome and costly as action now on climate change might be, it’s our best bet to avoid these climate breakdowns becoming more and more regular.

Practical farmers prepare, Prime Minister. The climate needs a little TLC and you’re just the right man for the job.

 

 

 

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…

The CSIRO and farming in a changing climate

This is one of the worst seasons on record around here and the only thing that has made it survivable has been good, early planning.

We sold 10 per cent of our cows and planted our summer turnips in the second week of Spring to give them a chance of survival. We pushed bloody hard to get an irrigator up and running so we could create a lush oasis of millet with water from our farm dam.

IrrigatorLoRes

Most importantly, we were quick to speak with our bank manager and buy hundreds of tonnes of extra hay and silage. It was not a pretty plan. It was a survival plan in the teeth of a failed season and a milk price that is below our break even point.

We are still a long way from next Spring but the survival plan is getting us through. I can’t imagine how we would have managed without it.

Central to our planning were the CSIRO’s soil moisture maps and Pastures from Space. Combining the two tools, we could see that not only were our pastures not growing in the peak of Spring, there was little chance they could. The soil was powder dry all the way down to a couple of metres. That can only be fixed by weeks and weeks of rain.

PfromSpace

In other words, we knew we were stuffed early enough to do something about it, thanks to the CSIRO. It’s survivable if we plan early, plan well and it doesn’t happen too regularly.

Still raw with the discomfort of this experience, I was gobsmacked to hear the CSIRO’s chief executive tell the ABC’s 7.30 Report that the climate change question has been answered.

The big question still remains for this farmer: how common will this type of season be in the future? The climate modelling is just not detailed or accurate enough. All we know is that it will be drier, warmer and more unpredictable than ever. And that’s nowhere near enough information to make good decisions.

To be frank, we don’t even have a worthwhile forecast for the next fortnight or the three months ahead. The Bureau of Meteorology’s oft-reported seasonal outlook is so unreliable here, it is literally the equivalent of tossing a coin – by the Bureau’s own admission.

We need more climate information, not less. If this type of season begins to roll around every five to 10 years rather than every 20 to 50, it’s no longer going to be viable to keep doing what we’re doing.

Farmers are innovators by nature. Rather than simply howling to the wind when it’s all too late, I will do something about it. What, for sure, I don’t know. Cuts to the CSIRO’s climate and land and water divisions will make finding the answers ever more difficult.

 

 

 

 

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.

Why I’m signing the Farmer’s Letter about climate change

The view from the house after the fire

The view from the house after the fire

Will you help me? Apparently, just before Australia goes to the Paris climate summit, proof is needed that real, live, everyday farmers want the government to do something about climate change.

According to today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

“A cabal of regional and rural Liberal members, centred in Western Australia and supported by a number of conservative MPs, will force a vote at Saturday’s federal council meeting in Melbourne on whether Parliament should “examine the evidence” around climate change before agreeing to any post-2020 emissions cuts.”

“Liberal sources told Fairfax Media that Environment Minister Greg Hunt is likely to be forced to step in and fight off the motion on Saturday by asserting the Abbott government accepts climate change is real and is willing to work with other nations to combat its effects.”

So, to show that farmers who want action are more than a figment of a latte-sipping lefty’s imagination, I’ve signed The Farmers’ Letter, which says simply:

“Aussie farmers are on the front line of rising temperatures and more extreme weather, so global warming is a priority issue for rural, regional and remote Australia. An ambitious target to cut carbon pollution, a transition plan away from coal and gas towards renewable energy, and a strong deal at the UN climate talks in Paris this December are all in the interests of Aussie farmers and our families.”

Dozens of farmers from across the country are joining me and I hope you will too, so that, like the Whos from Whoville, we can prove that we exist.

Noise

Perhaps climate change shifts are especially obvious to dairy farmers because these days, everything on a dairy farm is measured to the nth degree. We can tell you how many days it took for the cows to get in calf, how much grass we grew this week and how many litres of milk were made in the last 12 hours.

It’s a fact that less milk is made from listless cows in a heatwave and the cost of a litre of milk skyrockets during drought, fire or flood. And the locals are worried. Just as Alex was about to be born, I joined a meeting of dairy farmers in town to discuss what we could do to adapt to climate change.

I can’t tell you how impressed I was that individual farmers were already doing so much and were so hungry for more information. Four years on and I think it’s all become just another part of the way we farm around here.

But if we are really going to pass the farm on to the kids in a better state than we found it, we’d better make sure we are heard on climate change. Please, if the thought of doing nothing doesn’t sit well with you, visit www.farmerletter.org and show them you’re for real.

Time to turn out the lights, together

Farmers and environmentalists have finally come out of the closet, holding hands. As Landcarers, farmers have been practising “greenies” for decades, we’ve just never embraced the label.

Greenies are often seen as the enemy and, sometimes, some of them have been. We’ve been blamed for global warming, the blanching of the Great Barrier Reef and the land clearing sins of our forefathers; the rapists of the land.

But tonight, it’s the greenies themselves, WWF’s Earth Hour, who are showcasing Australian farming. Tune in to the Appetite for Change documentary on Channel 10 tonight or watch it online anytime.

The Earth Hour cookbook tells my family’s story and the stories of farmers around the country to inspire action. And it’s all constructive because Earth Hour understands that farmers, foodies and greenies belong on the same page.

We all need to eat, drink and breathe.

Nobody understands what the impact of a changing climate means better than farmers do. So embrace your inner greenie and turn off the lights tonight from 8.30 for Earth Hour.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen?

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

Making the wet worthwhile

Not quite monsoon weather

Not quite monsoon weather

I’m writing this post hoping to be embarrassed by calling this a flop of a monsoon trough. Earlier in the week, we were promised 5 inches of rain by now but we’ve clocked up about a tenth of that in five days of drizzle with perhaps an inch or so supposedly delayed in traffic still to come.  Not that I would ever look a gift horse in the mouth, of course!

The gift of a good soaking in summer is precious indeed. We don’t irrigate here so rely totally on what falls from the heavens and our farm is set up to make every drop count. The silver lining of greater climate volatility is more summer downpours. We have sown deep-rooted perennial pastures, including the heat-loving tall fescue and cocksfoot, throughout the farm. These pastures respond almost instantly to rain in summer and increase our resilience to an increasingly tricky climate.

Bring it on!

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.

 

Climate change: the gazillion-dollar question

Nick Minchin doesn’t stand a chance of changing my mind – I accept the evidence that climate change is real, along with (apparently) 97% of scientists.

In our part of the world, the long term trend is “dry, dry and drier” and the CSIRO’s State of the Climate Report confirms what many farmers here are dealing with right now.

What local dairy farmers are doing to cope with climate variability
We’ve been holding meetings and farm days to discuss how we can adapt. Here are some of the things locals are doing to help their farms cope with increased climate variability:

  • Changing the time of year calves are born
    On our farm, we are moving the start of calving from winter to autumn – a shift of almost two months. This allows us to take advantage of extra grass during milder winters while reducing our exposure to longer, hotter, drier summers.
  • Planting trees
    Trees aren’t just good for wildlife – they offer our cows shelter from uncomfortable weather and help to protect pastures from searing summer winds.
  • Trialling new pasture types
    Rye grass is the mainstay of dairy farming pastures around here but it has shallow roots that are quite vulnerable to heat and pests (which are expected to become more problematic). We’ve been sowing cocksfoot and fescue in some of our less productive pastures. Both have deep root systems that can tap into moisture lower in the soil. Other farmers are trialling chicory, plantain and other herbs too.
  • Shade and sprinklers at the dairy
    Lots of us have installed sprinklers and shade sails over the dairy yards and fans in the shed to help keep the cows cool while they wait to be milked, minimising the risk of heat stress.
  • Increasing energy efficiency
    Farmers have been flocking to seminars about green cleaning and water heating technology. For us, it’s meant a thorough audit of our dairy’s refrigeration, milking machines and hot water system.

In other words, local farmers are reading the tea leaves and, for us, the gazillion-dollar question is not whether climate change is real (or whether it’s caused by people) but what we should do about it. Consider us your canaries.