Go home, Mother Nature, you’re drunk

WaterDryIn April and May, we were using the very last of our dam water in a desperate attempt to get grass out of the ground. Two weeks ago, we had floods and the cows missed two milkings, trapped on the flats despite valiant attempts to bring them home.

FloodJune22fjord

Then, just last week, we had snow.

SnowyHills

We even went up to the nearby hills so five-year-old Alex could see snow for the first time.

SnowAlex

It’s been a crazy year so far but I refuse to be cowed by mud.

mud

I’m celebrating the recharging of our dam for summer. It got very, very low but now is back.

DamSun

I’m also celebrating the snatch of spring we felt between the floods and the snow. With it came the magic of balloonists and their silks drifting across the river flats.

Most of all, it’s bringing the hope of a good season when we need it so desperately. We cannot afford to buy in hundreds of tonnes of hay again this year. A failed season like last year would spell disaster in the jaws of a crushingly low milk price. To survive, we need to grow more grass than ever.

Landgate’s Pastures from Space tool confirms it’s been a difficult start to the year, with pasture growth rates actually even worse than last year’s failure. The thick red line represents an average year, the blue one is last year and the black one is the year to date.

PasturesFromSpacePGR

The outcome is even more stark when you look at the cumulative amount of feed grown. Again, red is average, blue is last year and black is this year. Last year the farm grew half the amount of grass it grows in an average year and this year sits below even that low water mark – so far.

PasturesFromSpaceTDM

As you can see from the two charts, things need to get better, fast. I’m really optimistic that we are seeing a turnaround.

Up until now, the rain we’ve had has been simply replenishing the parched subsoil rather than growing much grass. It needs to happen because unless the subsoil is moist, the root zone dries out in the warmth of Spring as soon as there’s any halt in rainfall.

So, how is the soil moisture looking? Check out these Australian Landscape Water Balance charts. The first one shows just how recently the soil moisture in the root zone has returned to normal. This means that, finally, the grass can grow if there’s enough sun, nutrients and warmth.

AWAProotzone

The good news is that while the subsoil is not as wet as the root zone, it’s returned to about average. The one to watch still is the deep soil moisture, which as you can see from the chart below, still has a way to go.

AWAPdeep

Mother Nature may be behaving like a drunk but, while it’s raining, I’m not complaining.

Creature report – farming in the wilds of 2015

A new genus: the man-eating wallaby

A new genus: the man-eating wallaby

It’s not just the live animals you’ve got to be wary of here on the farm. Aside from the copperhead that kept Wayne company during milking the other week, perhaps our most memorable wildlife encounter of 2015 was actually with a dead animal undoubtedly new to science: the man-eating wallaby.

One rainy winter’s night, Wayne called a halt to cooking the evening meal when he drew me aside to check out a mysterious shape wrapped in a tea towel.

Bent low and unwrapping the tea towel slowly, he said in hushed tones, “I found this outside the pump shed. Take a look at the fangs on it.”

“Wow,” I gasped, “see how they hook together. Looks like they could tear a nasty hole in your leg.”

“F*@&ing scary wallaby,” whispered Wayne with a poker face.

After nearly choking on a mouthful of water, I came up for air, and wondered if I saw the faintest of smirks on Wayne’s face as he retaliated with: “It’s a bloody wallaby alright, you should see its tail!” Was the joke on me or City Boy? I’ll never know for sure.

Life and death
It was raining too, when the kids and I discovered a dead kangaroo along the boundary fence. Her eyes were dull, legs immobile.

While I worked on the fence, the kids took a closer look and announced a miracle! “Mama, Mama, it’s alive, it’s alive,” they shouted, arms flailing wildly as they ran towards me.

They were right, almost. The kangaroo had killed herself in an impact with the fence but her pouch rolled and wriggled with life. Oh my god. The kindest thing might have been to euthanase the squirming joey right there but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Luckily, we had latex milking gloves in the Bobcat and, with my heart in my mouth, I reached deep into the still-warm pouch. After a few tries, out came a weeks-old hairless male joey, plop, into a towel we carry around in case of mud pie catastrophes.

Joey in front of the fire

Joey in front of the fire

Wrapped in the towel and my raincoat, joey was held close to Zoe’s tummy for the chilly trip back to the warm of our hearth. We got him off to wildlife rescue volunteers, who told me just the other week that he’s soon to be released back into the forest. ‘Til we meet again!

Reptilian gatecrasher
In general, I’m not a big fan of reptiles on the farm but Blueys are different. Why, we even had one as a class pet in primary school. So, when this fellow appeared at home, I was keen to introduce him to the kids.

As with the cicada conditioning calamity, it seemed my introduction may have backfired a little. But all was forgotten later when Bluey unexpectedly appeared out of nowhere to watch the evening news with us.

Bluey obviously likes to be well informed

Bluey obviously likes to be well informed

Beast becomes beauty before our eyes
Not every creature we see makes such an exciting entrance but we marveled every day as we walked to the bus stop during Spring, watching a web of monsters transform themselves.

From this

From this

To this

To this

To emerge as the gorgeous Northern Jezebel

To emerge as the gorgeous Northern Jezebel

A motley crew!
There were plenty of other beauties along the way, too. Enjoy just a selection of what the farm offered up to us in 2015!
CreatureYabbyLoRes

CreatureHoppingMouseLoRes

CreatureFrogLoRes

CreatureEchidnaFaceLoRes

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

How to grow Aussie dairy: vertical and horizontal integration

In last week’s post about what it will take to encourage dairy farmers to grow, I promised to follow up with some ideas. The first is a guest post from Ian Macallan, a project strategist and business architect who has operated in the Asia Pacific for over 30 years across a number of industries including dairy.

Whilst 97 per cent of Australian dairy farms are family-owned, there are smatterings of “corporate farming” that bring together large parcels of land and cows.

If left unchecked, this type of pure farm aggregation could swing to the extreme of looking like feudal farming, leaving no capacity for family dairy farming. These corporate farms are also still vulnerable to milk price fluctuations.
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On your marks for Spring on the farm

Spring starts tomorrow

Spring starts tomorrow


I’m excited. Fertiliser’s going on, calves are still being born and raised, almost all of the milkers are in and we are joining again with an eye to the next generation. The grass is growing a new leaf every seven days and, before we know it, the silage harvest will start.

This is the make or break time of year when everything has to be done right. Miss cutting a paddock of silage by a week and it could mean buying in expensive fodder later, miss a cow’s readiness to mate and it could cost you $250 in lost milk, miss a problem calving and it might cost a cow’s life.

All our skills are tested in Spring – from biology through to animal behaviour – so we need tools to help us.

We stick “scratchy tickets” on each cow’s back to make it easier to see when she’s ready to mate. Okay, she’s got no chance of winning the lottery but the silver coating of these stickers gets rubbed off when other cows leap onto her back in response to her hormonal cues, revealing hot pink, yellow or orange tell tales underneath.

The results of summertime soil tests and the advice of our agronomist allow us to maximise the performance of our pastures while minimising the impact on the environment.

Knowing when silage involves crawling around the paddocks keeping a close eye on grass growth, then entering the results into a clever little “Rotation Right” spreadsheet devised by our guru friends at DEPI.

But raising calves and watching over expectant cows? That’s a whole lot of tender care, time and generations of farming knowledge (yes, yes, combined with the latest advances in science).

This is when a farmer really knows she’s alive!

Charged by a cow

It all happened in slow motion. I was walking across the paddock to offer our vet, Sarah, a light steel pigtail post for protection when the cow we were so desperately trying to save squared up to me, lowered her head and charged.

I managed to strafe her face once with the spring steel rod but it did nothing to deter her.  Collecting me under the chin with her neck, she effortlessly threw her pathetic matador into the air. Luckily, I was not trampled; as my head hit the ground I saw her white belly soar through the sky as she cantered off towards the distant corner of the paddock.

I stood up, sobbing, laughing and shaking. My jaw sat unnervingly askew and my head was already sore but I was still alive and walking.

After three x-rays and a CAT scan, I’m home again, neck in a brace and feeling chastened for the anxiety I caused my ashen-faced children, who witnessed the whole thing. So, what went wrong?

The cow was a terrified first-time calver (“heifer”) in big trouble. She’d been down for a couple of hours with a rotten calf inside and sprang up miraculously the moment Sarah arrived.

1. My instincts were right that she was cranky but I didn’t know her and should have been triply careful.

2. I got off the Bobcat and walked to the vet. Why oh why didn’t I drive to the vet?

3. The vet was on the ground instead of in the Bobcat. I’d already called for extra help on wheels and if we’d waited another five minutes, this would never have happened. A vet’s time is valuable but not more valuable than life itself.

In other words, I was in a rush and took unnecessary risks in the name of getting the job done even though I pride myself on being very safety-conscious. The latest WorkSafe statistics prove dairy farming is agriculture’s most dangerous job: please learn from my mistakes and take care out there.

 

 

From soggy paddock to paradise

Can you spot two black swans and a flock of wood ducks and moorhens?

Can you spot two black swans and a flock of wood ducks and moorhens?

Stretching a temporary fence across an adjacent paddock in the warm winter sun, I was captivated by the scene through the tussocks. Two black swans were gliding across the water, a mob of moorhens were stretching their long orange legs, while a dozen or so wood ducks gathered a little way off.

It wasn’t always this way. This is, or was, paddock 17.  One of the lowest parts of the farm, paddock 17 was often under water and when we investigated the soil, we found it was a potential acid sulphate soil (PASS) with high levels of salinity. The safest thing to do was leave it alone, so we fenced it off and, one November, planted 800 moisture-loving plants with the help of a Landcare grant and the hard work of the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group volunteers.

The next two seasons were the wettest on record and I thought we’d lost the lot. We moved the fence out further and the Wellington Shire offered some extra money to replant the margins. Well, it’s all taken off – even some of the first plantings I’d given up on – and we now can boast a magical on-farm ephemeral wetland habitat.

Put yourself in the paddock with me for a few seconds and listen to this:

 

“Bring on the cows” demands a new routine

“Bring on the cows” trumpets The Australian, headlining a story about MG Co-op managing director, Gary Helou. In response to rumours that the co-op might purchase a large Tasmanian dairy farm, Mr Helou reportedly says:

“We are not farmers; MG is a global dairy food processing and milk company, and we will not be buying farms directly; that is not our business,” Helou says adamantly.

“The only way to get extra cows and milk is to up the farm gate price enough that farmers will want to invest (in more cows) themselves. So that’s what I have set out to do, maximise the farm gate price and reduce the cost of processing and the supply chain and then efficient production will follow.”

Here’s the problem: MG is not a global dairy food processing and milk company. It is a co-operative of Australian dairy farmers who are members because they expect MG to, first and foremost, maximise their profitability. Not by investing in a processor (they could just buy ASX shares if that was what it was all about) but by looking after farmers directly.

They don’t just supply MG, it’s not just their MG, farmers ARE MG.

Am I being hopelessly idealistic? I don’t think so. This focus on being a processor has flowed through to the co-operative’s milk price system.

The final milk price only tells half the story. The quoted “average weighted” milk price is skewed to favour farms with flat production curves (mirroring those of the processor) at the cost of farms whose milk supply matches the natural ebb and flow of cow and pasture. For the vast majority of Australian dairy farmers, the way our co-operative pays us is at odds with efficient milk production.

MG must remember what being a cooperative really means before its farmers will be ready to “bring on the cows”.

What heaven looks like for a dairy cow

Last night I’d just finished setting up a fresh paddock for the cows when the first of our ladies to leave the dairy strolled in.

Black and white bliss

Black and white bliss

I reckon I could have sat on this cow’s back stark-naked playing the banjo for all she cared. She was in a heaven all her own. Her herd mates weren’t far away though and when they saw what was waiting for them…

It’s only the second time they’ve grazed this newly-renovated pasture and they love it. The grass comes with a special type of fungus called the AR37 endophyte, which makes the grass naturally more resistant to pests (with huge environmental gains). Endophytes are nothing new but, traditionally, they come at a cost: the taste test. Cows seem not to like the old endophytes as much and they can even cause health issues for the cows.

AR37, on the other hand, is meant not to have any impact on palatability or cow health and, judging by the cows’ reactions, I’d say they’d give it three Moochelin stars!