A purple blister on the weather map is coming to get us

Holy cow

Holy cow

It’s not a good sign when the local weather forecaster gets a spot on ABC Radio’s National news. Our forecast is so shocking that, yes, it made headlines today.

A massive chunk of Victoria is about to go underwater and, with it, a massive chunk of our farm. We’ve had an inch of rain in the last two hours and the prediction is for between 51 and 102mm tomorrow, followed by another 20 or 30mm over another couple of days.

I’m thankful for the undulations at the southern end of the farm. The cows will at least be safe.

I’m also thankful for the Bureau of Meteorology’s timely warnings. It gave us time to:

  • Set up safer paddocks for the cows
  • Ask Scott, the grain merchant, to deliver more feed before we get flooded in
  • Remove the power units from the electric fences on the river flats
  • Bring all the eight new calves born during the last 48 hours into the warmth of the poddy shed
  • Stock up at the supermarket
  • Pile the verandah high with dry kindling and wood to keep the kids warm

As the flood sets in, we’ll be:

  • Offering extra TLC for newborns and freshly-calved cows
  • Feeding out more of our precious and rapidly dwindling stock of hay while hitting the phones looking for more ridiculously scarce fodder
  • Keeping an even keener eye out for mastitis
  • Walking the cows extra gently to the dairy to reduce the risk of lameness
  • Hoping like hell that the damage to the fences and tracks isn’t too bad
  • Monitoring the condition of paddocks to minimise pugging (mud, mud, mud)
  • Stocking the dairy snack bar with a bottomless supply of soup and raisin bread

It’s often said that good farmers only worry about what they can control. I’ll do my best!

Green is not always good

Our farm hosted some very distinguished guests yesterday.

VIPelicans

VIPelicans

I am so glad they arrived now and not two weeks ago. The farm’s stunning Land for Wildlife Dam is sanctuary for many beautiful birds but, for the first time in living memory, the dam succumbed to an algal bloom that looked more like a massive acrylic paint disaster.

Algae on January 30

Algae on January 30

The stuff was brilliant green and, while not smelly, it was not a welcome sight. Excess nutrients and warmth can combine to bring about algal blooms that leave waterways toxic for weeks or months. Here’s how the water’s edge looked yesterday. A lot better but still not clear.

Algae February 12

Algae February 12

So, what to do? Experts say to exclude stock from the dam and create a buffer to prevent fertiliser runoff – and that’s already done. Next, we will emulate the sewage wetlands of Melbourne’s newest housing estates and plant dense stemmy vegetation upstream of the dam that will encourage “good” algae and strip nutrients from the water as it passes through. It will mean more wildlife habitat and safer water. Good for everyone!

And the rollercoaster goes up!

This was the farm 48 hours ago. Shrouded in smoke from the bushfires, the place was tinder dry.

January 25

January 25

I went to bed last night with 4 inches of water in the house tank and hoped like hell that the easterly over Bairnsdale would grace us with its presence. We had gone all out, after all. The cairn dedicated to Thor is almost complete, the washing line was full of dry clothes and, to top it off, Wayne left the quad bike in the centre of the lawn with his helmet upturned like a giant goblet, ready to receive the sacrament.

Thor delivered.

Almost 18mm of gentle rain!

Almost 18mm of gentle rain!

There is not a puddle to be seen but the place smells wonderful and the plants are already responding.

What a difference 12 hours makes

What a difference 12 hours makes

We had to celebrate!

The Thor Cairn was the perfect place to celebrate and pay homage

The Thor Cairn was the perfect place to celebrate and pay homage

What makes this rain even more special is that there is more rain forecast over the next week and not a day over 30 degrees. The cows will love it! Can’t wait to snap another panorama at the end of the week to see new life breathed into the farm.

Project “Thor”

After a record wet winter followed by a fleeting Spring, it hasn’t rained here in a long time.

In fact, despite several attempts at emulating the Sioux rain dance ritual shown in the remarkable footage (bear with it, not all stills) below, we have had little success – other than the 2.5mm of rain we got after our fourth performance a week ago, there’s been nothing in the gauge for a few weeks now.

Perhaps the problem lies in our execution. Since the materials used by the Sioux are not all readily available here in Australia, we have been forced to improvise with picnic blankets, turquoise hayband, the feathers of wedge-tail eagles, dyed hessian sacks and rubber boots adorned with eucalyptus leaves and shells.

We are getting desperate and it shows.

Under construction: will Thor be impressed?

Rain Dance Ampitheatre under construction

Drawing upon my husband’s Scandinavian heritage, I am building a stone amphitheatre to honour Thor with a special sacrifice: a washing basket full of damp linen. With a toddler in the midst of toilet training and the truly spectacular laundry that makes our dairy-farming family infamous, you’ll understand the meaning of such an offering.

I know I must show total faith in Thor’s generosity but any tips would be gratefully received.

Farmers just need to…

Complete the sentence: “Farmers just need to…”

A few I’ve heard recently are:

  • “Work smarter”
  • “Be more innovative”
  • “Drive for >5% cost reductions”
  • “Scale up to meet the world’s insatiable need for protein”
  • “Don’t JUST farm. Add a few more feathers to your cap”

Most of these comments have been made quite flippantly, with little or no background knowledge of Australian dairy farming and, to be frank, they give me the irrits.

What makes me really angry, though, is when our leaders parrot the “Scale up to meet the world’s insatiable need for protein” line.

We farmers need to justify investing more money, blood, sweat and tears in growth – both to our families and our bankers. Unless farm gate prices for milk increase substantially, that’s a very difficult proposition. According to official figures, most of the state’s dairy farms have a return on investment of 1 to 3 per cent, forcing a focus on financial survival. Much higher returns can be made elsewhere with less work and far lower risk.

To those whose simplistic response is “work smarter, diversify or value-add”, let me point out some realities. Click the link to see how the average Australian dairy farmer is paid compared to dairy farmers around the world:

https://milkmaidmarian.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/figure-8-international-farmgate-milk-prices-us-per-100kg.pdf

What does this mean for a farming family like mine? We want to improve the farm, so Wayne and I are both holding down second jobs (in other words, we are not “just farming”). The plan is that these improvements will make the farm more profitable and sustainable. We are making progress but farm life is currently anything but sustainable from a personal point of view. You just can’t work this many hours forever.

Perhaps we are dullards and are just not efficient enough but I doubt it. The farm I run now bears almost no resemblance to the farm of my childhood 30 years ago. It’s the same 500 acres but we milk 50 per cent more cows and each produces around 55 per cent more milk than her ancestor did in the 1980s: a huge leap in productivity.

Although these numbers are impressive, we are far from exceptional. According to Dairy Australia, Victoria’s raw milk production peaked in 2001-02 at 7.4 billion litres – more than double the 3 billion litres produced in 1980-81. Yield per cow also increased from 3,012 litres in 1979-1980 to 5,864 litres in 2008/09.

Sadly, we are unlikely to continue to make such gains. Our brains trust, the Victoria’s Department of Primary Industries, is being savagely pruned, reducing our ability to innovate and work smart. We don’t enjoy the subsidies that support our US and European counterparts or the free trade agreement with China that advantages our Kiwi neighbours. And now, we face an estimated $7000 carbon tax cost that will nobble us even further.

The playing field is far from level and getting steeper all the time.

Please can we do some more farm jobs?

Apparently, Australian agriculture needs to be made more “sexy” to attract young people. I don’t think so. While you can get paid ridiculous amounts of money to work in mining, the call of the land is strong for those who really love it.

Already, I can see it’s in Zoe’s blood.

Zoe chases the heifers

“I’ll get them, Mum, I can do it, you watch!”

Straight off the school bus, she launched into moving the yearlings with great gusto. It was like watching Patch. She ran around them in circles first, then made some crazy dashes right through the centre of the mob. Pure unadulterated fun!

We got them all out a few minutes later, with flushed cheeks and the wind in our hair. “Please, Mum, can we do some more farm jobs before we go home?”

My gut tells me Australian farming and fresh food has a great future. My head tells me that’s so too, with one caveat: before they can feed the world, there has to be a sustainable return so they have confidence there’ll be enough to feed themselves.

Kicking back on the farm

By far the coolest animals on our dairy farm are the 2 year olds.

Just kicking back

With the fearlessness and carefree existence of youth, these girls really know how to relax!

“Cool” is also the understatement of the month for Spring 2012. The area set aside for revegetation is earning its sexy NRM-funding title of ‘ephemeral wetland’ with more regularity than I would like.

Does this count as the fifth flood of 2012?

On the other hand, the grass is growing in between inundations. If it would just stop raining for a couple of weeks, we might get some silage tucked away for summer!

Mother duck speeds her charges away from the cow track as the herd passes by.

People and animals tell the farm’s story

This was Zoe on the Bobcat as I moved the electric tape in paddock 6 on Friday. It really was sunny enough to dig out the zinc!

Yes, two pairs of oversized sunglasses are apparently “hot” right now

I’d been away from the paddock for a week and things had got away. It’s newly sown to a high performance grass and zoomed off once the saturated soil turned to plasticene over a balmy few days. We had to get the cows in at once if there was any chance of keeping grass quality levels up over Spring.

At this time of the year, it’s really important to divide the paddock into small strips. Let them into the whole lot at once and most will be wasted as the engorged cows make nests to sleep it off. The trick is to have the cows absolutely full to pussy’s bow, but only just. It’s good for the cows, good for milk production and good for the grass.

The grass on the right has just been grazed, the grass on the left is for dinner

Grass growth will have come to a skidding halt over the last couple of glacial days though. Everything is mushy and muddy all over again. Including Patch.

Whadda you mean I can’t come inside?


 

Solar on the farm? Maybe.

It costs between $4000 and $5000 per quarter in power bills just to run the dairy, so we jumped at the chance to have an energy audit done on the farm by Gabriel Hakim, thanks to GippsDairy.

Energy Audit with Gab

Gabriel and Wayne check out the systems

It showed us where our energy is used and highlighted that maybe we had better look at increasing the flow of water to our milk heat exchanger. Still, there were no massive savings to be made (and don’t we all love a silver bullet?), so I’ve started investigating alternative power for the dairy.

A wind turbine would have a payback period of 60 years! Jeepers! So, I’ve since been looking at solar. You can now lease solar systems with the repayments matched to your electricity savings, making the exercise cashflow neutral. Very nice! The only thing now is to get the right size system.

It’s not as easy as you think because the cows are generally milked too early and too late in the day to capitalise on solar energy, so I think we’ll be starting off small. That’s not so bad because it won’t lock us in to the technology forever and I am sure something even better is on its way!

Finding pleasure in the small stuff

Gully reflections

Smile at the small stuff

The silver lining to the devastation of the flood is that I’m enjoying some of the farm’s special secret spots. The relentless hunt for shorts in the fence bring me to lovely quiet places like this where time seems to stand still and there is no mobile reception.

I’ve been impressed to see how well the trees planted last summer with the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group fellows have not only coped but thrived in the wet conditions.

9 month old trees

Only nine months after planting, these trees are firing on all cylinders

Even trees that I gave up for dead are emerging. The wetland was planted out with 800 blackwoods, melaleucas and swamp gums two years ago. The hardy melaleucas are staging a comeback after months of at least partial submersion!

New trees in the wetland

Swamp paperbarks emerge from the morass

The favoured maxim might be “don’t sweat the small stuff” but I must admit to savouring the small stuff, especially when it’s such an important part of the big picture.