When it comes to survival here on the farm, the three things with the potential to make or break are:
- Our health
- Mother Nature
- 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 (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.
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.
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…