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

Work with me to look after our cows

I want to give every one of our cows a better life. It may sound grandiose but I think of myself as their guardian.

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I am not a corporation, not a money-hungry investor looking to tear a quick buck off the backs of our cows. No, I am in this for the long-term, not five years or a decade but for the generations beyond mine. Every time I plant a new trailer-load of trees, I imagine the deep shade they will cast when my children reach middle age.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

How we planted trees 40 years ago

Every calf we rear is fed with enough colostrum to bless her with a long and healthy life, not just until market day. And the herd is scrupulously isolated from disease like BJD, not just for now, but for generations of cows to come.

No rest for the mother of twins

A perfect multi-tasking mother cow!

I’m not an aberration, not a monster, just a farmer doing her best. So don’t tell me I am cruel if you don’t understand – or approve of – the way I care for our animals. Sit alongside me in the paddocks and, together, perhaps we can work out a better way.

 

Singing in the rain: a pony introduces herself to the herd

Meet our newest family member, Dixie the divine.

DixieYesterday, the cows were in the house paddock for the first time since Dixie came to live with us and they were intrigued to meet her, lining up by the horse paddock and bobbing their heads in astonishment at the strange “brown cow that whinnies”.

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

It was a misty, drizzly morning and while the cows and Dixie were separated by perhaps 50 metres of paddock, the effect was magnetic. Dixie whinnied. The ladies mooed. And so on for a good half hour. Continue reading

A brush with fire

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It’s all a little surreal. We are still being urged to take shelter from a fast-moving bushfire but the cows are in for the evening milking and the kids are watching Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom. Over a howling south-westerly, I can hear the thudding blades of water bombing helicopters.

All in all, it’s a miracle. After an anxious day spent with friends in town, I can breathe again.

The fires are only about 5kms away but they’re upwind. Just to be sure, the cars are still packed to the gills with our most precious belongings and every few minutes, I trot outside to survey the fire activity.

The cows spent the day in a closely grazed paddock with access to the river and will stay by the dam tonight, in case we lose power and can’t refill the troughs.

That south-westerly change was our salvation but we know it will have been someone else’s menace. Take care.

At least one dairy farmer won’t mind the summer heat

Bogged on the first day of summer

Bogged on the first day of summer

Wayne has a reputation for getting stuck and he’s outdone himself this year by bogging a quad bike on the first day of summer. Worse, he left his helmet at the scene of the crime and by the time the kids and I came to the rescue, his gear had been given a beating by the local hoons.

Cows may be vegetarians but don’t for a minute think that this in itself bestows innocence. They are merciless with unattended vehicles. This time the helmet, fuel breather line and rubber boot for the brake assembly were squelched deep into the quagmire but I’ve seen much worse.

In fact, a local fencing guy swears one (or maybe a gang) of our “ladies” opened his ute door and took off with his cheese and Vegemite sandwiches, leaving only a trail of slobber on the gearstick and driver’s seat.

Moral of the story: never leave valuables in sight or your vehicle unlocked.

A shocking day

Yesterday was a shocker.

After getting Zoe off to school, it was time to do the annual “spring clean” of the fences. The event is triggered by the influx of youngsters into the herd. Every bit as adventurous and bullet-proof as your teenage son, these first-time calvers are new to the dairy side of the farm and love to explore far beyond the allocated paddock of the day.

The result: chaos. Sure, it only lasts a few weeks but, in that time, I could face divorce from a frustrated hubby sick and tired of chasing newbies around the farm. With all that in mind, I head off with the tester to gird the fences against the onslaught.

First stop is the all-important fence around the effluent pond. Nothing. “Not another #@$% battery.” Much muttering.

I’ve broken the farm’s electric fence system up into cells using a cadre of solar-powered energisers so that a single fault cannot bring the whole place to its knees and what I’ve discovered is that the batteries only last a season or two.

I wriggle the connections and ZAP! Well, at least I know it’s working. Test the blasted thing: 9 point bloody 6. No wonder I didn’t enjoy it. Pick up the clamp to attach it to the fence.

ZAP!

“AAAARGH”

“Need…new…clamp”

“What doing, Mama?” asks the little fellow in the Bobcat. “Never mind, Little Man”.

After a bit more spring cleaning, I discover a major fault down by the gully. Investigations reveal a blessed wombat has dug a perfectly good post right out of the ground, collapsing the fence and quite literally earthing it. A steel picket does the job nicely. And we’re up!

Job done, I roar the Bobcat through the gates, leap off and in a few paces find myself shrieking and dancing over a writhing red-bellied black snake.

Fellow dairy farmer, Nick Renyard (@farmer_nick_au) later described this snake as “pretty” but with ashen face, thumping heart and jellied limbs, that was not what sprang to mind a few moments later when the silence was again broken by Little Man.

“What doing, Mama?”

Back on the job and with a paddock selected, it’s time to bring the heavily pregnant youngsters across the road. We crossed that road a total of eight times (four return trips) over the course of an hour before conceding defeat. Young stock like to be driven by pedestrians rather than UTVs but I was tethered close to the machine by Little Man who understandably wanted to be part of the action.

We decided to take a breather (did I mention that low-stress stock handling techniques do not involve inter-spousal shouting sequences?) and let them settle for a couple of hours while we had a think.

In the end, it was Wayne’s brain-wave that saved the day: “Why not just let them run up the road?”.

A cunning plan indeed. Refusing to take the orthodox route along the track past the dairy, the rotters duly ran straight up the road and “escaped” through the road gate into the house paddock. Not there yet but across the road, yesssss!

There was much running, shouting and frantic arm-waving to get the mob of 50 trainees to run under the hot wire into their new home. All done wearing heavy rubber boots through deep mud. This morning, with aching hammies, I think of Cliff Young and marvel at not just the stamina but the ingenuity of the Legend.

Jousting for poll position

Scuffles broke out right across the paddock as the weak winter sun lit the stage for a bovine pugilism festival. The cows were feeling magnificent and, unable to contain their energy, were ready to take on all comers.

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The kids and I love watching the cows “do butter-heads” and the cows seem to love it, too. For every pair or trio engaged in warfare, there will be a group of curious onlookers and one scuffle seems to inspire more outbreaks.

Does butter-heads have a serious purpose though? Yes, it does. The herd has a very structured pecking order. Cows come into the dairy in roughly the same order every milking and the smallest and most timid are inevitably last. Mess them up by splitting the herd into seemingly random groups for a large-scale vet procedure like preg testing and you can expect trouble. There are cows thrust into leadership positions who don’t want to go into the yard first and lots more poo than usual.

I am sure that in days gone by, these battles were often fought to the death. Strong, razor sharp horns with 550kg of muscle and bone behind them are fearsome weapons. Our calves have their horn buds removed as painlessly as we can manage it early on to avoid far greater traumas later in life and for our own protection.

Soon, they will be spared even this discomfort. Dairy cows are being bred “polled” (without horns) and, eventually, we will have a herd that is naturally hornless. It’s not easy finding suitable polled bulls yet but our breeding centre tells me that demand from dairy farmers for polled semen is now “huge”.

I have my eyes on a couple of German polled beaux for our ladies. I only hope we can get them in time for this year’s mating season.

A milk maid’s Mother’s Day

Zoe is sound asleep still gripping a book propped upright on her chest with the rollicking Fantastic Mr Fox in full swing on her CD player. Alex is prostrate with both arms up around his ears.

Today was tough for my little people. Alex got himself soaked and in trouble with Mama for tossing stones into a trough while Zoe learnt the hard way not to swing on a gal gate beside a hot wire.

We were desperate to get a whole list of farm jobs done before the rain came and it was action stations all day. Now, as the first shower of a forecast two or three inch deluge tip-toes across the farm house’s iron roof, it seems all very satisfactory.

Zoe, Alex and I fed two batches of cows, treated a sick calf, repaired two fences and a gate (what is it with the bulls?), brought in a load of wood, planted a tree, sorted 24 cows from a mob of 60, shifted the teenagers and got out two new mums with their calves.

A real team effort

A real team effort

And, in amongst all that, I was treated to the most marvellous Mother’s Day. Wayne cooked a Moroccan chicken lunch and I was presented with all sorts of very meaningful mementos. I am very, very lucky indeed.

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The sun is up and so is the sparky (or, the day began pear-shaped)

Dairy cows are rounded up before dawn but, today, they slept in. We had a bit of a disaster in the dairy last night that would have meant the girls missed breakfast. That certainly would not do, so while they waited for the sparky to weave his magic in the grain auger control box, this is how the cows enjoyed watching the sunrise.

Sleeping in

Sleeping in

Two hours later than normal, with steaming breath and swaddled in layers of clothes to ward off the still chilly air, the kids and I had the rare treat of a family morning round up.

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

Rounding up was noisier than usual, too!

The cows seemed to take it all in their stride but we are lucky this has happened late in the season when milk production is falling away. Farmers are so fastidious about rising early because a late morning milking means painfully-full udders and the risk of mastitis. Wayne took the opportunity to do a heap of other farm chores while the feed system was repaired and will milk the cows late tonight to help even things out for the cows again.

A big thank you to Dutchy the sparky for getting out of bed so early on a frosty Sunday morning. It turns out that, in dairy country, the cows rule the lives of farmers, their families and even the local electricians.

Cows having a sleep in

Changing down to go up a notch

It seemed Mother Nature had played a classic nasty trick on us: the false break.

Each autumn, we take a punt on when the first downpour that heralds regular rains has arrived. Too early and some seed just won’t germinate costing us thousands in fresh seed and fertiliser, too late and we could miss out on autumn growth altogether, costing us thousands in replacement feed.

We get it right most of the time but when the early rains aren’t followed up with more, we end up with the worst of all worlds: seedlings shrivelling in the sun. That’s the way it was shaping up this season until we got 26mm of rain just the other day. Wow, what a relief and what a difference it makes.

The rains have come and the farmer and her cows are ecstatic!

The rains have come and the farmer and her cows are ecstatic!

Oddly enough, this means the cows will get less rather than more grass in the short term. This follow up rain was our signal to pile on the fertiliser across a huge slab of the farm to ensure the grass gets ahead before falling temperatures and longer nights slow growth once more. While the fertiliser does its job, we have to keep the cows away, limiting them to a smaller than normal area for grazing.

Just another couple of weeks to go, moos – until then, it’s a smorgasbord of grain, hay and silage.