Planning for disaster while dodging a bullet

Daffodil
Today’s blossoming of the very first daffodil reminded me we’re on the cusp of Spring – our 12 weeks of make or break on the farm.

Only yesterday, a banker asked me how the outlook was on farm. Anxious is the answer.

The feed pinch
The big dry has sent grain futures soaring, signalling that we’re in for exorbitant grain prices by Christmas.

Meanwhile, it’s been very hard to grow grass and the dry subsoils provide little moisture in reserve for what the Bureau is predicting will be a drier-than-normal Spring.

While we’ve invested heavily in a small amount of irrigation infrastructure, the dam is still well below full and we have no access to the aquifer.

At the same time, high quality hay suitable for the milkers is in very short supply, so I’ve been trying to lock in feed this harvest before it becomes too tight to mention.

The money pinch
Most dairy products are either traded internationally in US dollars or sold to domestic customers at a rate linked to international commodity prices.

This means that as the Australian dollar rises against the US dollar, the value of our milk falls. And rise it has, reaching 80 cents for the first time in two years.

Green shoots bring hope
On the other side of the ledger, there’s been cause for hope this morning.

Despite the exchange rate fears, the processor we supply, Fonterra, lifted its price for milk from $5.30kgMS to $5.50kgMS (from roughly 40.5 cents per litre to about 42 cents).

Second, I found a heap of worms slithering across the track in a bid to avoid the saturated soil. Yes, saturated! For the first time this winter, we finally have soft top soils.

Better late than never. Let’s hope the rain keeps coming and we don’t need to feed the cows massive amounts of grain to get through another drought.

Worm

Fried pastures fry a farmer’s brain

The 5 o'clock swill

Feeding the cows will be a challenge this summer

The fear that steals alongside a horrifyingly dry season robs this farmer of more than dollars. Confusion as deep and disorienting as a thick Edinburgh fog sets in. I knew it was going to be dry, but this? This can’t happen. The brain moves into the basic fight or flight mode, making it harder than ever to manage the complexities of cow, climate, cashflow and crops.

In counterattack, I create spreadsheet after spreadsheet, recreating a standard season, adding a “drought factor” and checking, checking, checking.

Still, I find myself lying in the midnight darkness, chest tight, heart pounding loud over the silence of a sleeping household. Rolling numbers over in a head spinning with scenarios and doubts. Then scolding myself for my lack of serenity and self control, knowing that smart decisions can only be made on the back of a good night’s sleep. Deep breaths, think of our children’s sweet faces. Sink back into slumber.

The antidote is a committed plan. A meeting with the bank manager and a handshake with the hay man put me back on a more even keel. Once I’d said it all out loud, ordered an inconceivable amount of hay and arranged the extra mortgage, the fog began to lift. Yes, it will put us back eight years but the kids will barely notice. They won’t be sleeping rough or missing out on school excursions. We’re lucky, really, I tell myself.

I’ve drawn heavily on everything we’ve built over the past few years: the equity we’d slowly clawed back plus networks of farmer friends, advisors and financial whizzes. But a lot of people down here are not so well supported, including one young farmer who called today feeling overwhelmed and isolated. He takes some comfort when I tell him of my own sleepless nights.

Our silage contractor, Wayne Bowden, goes on ABC Radio a couple of days ago, explaining the situation. We’ve had about a tenth of our normal rainfall all spring and only 4 in 10 farmers are making any silage. Hay simply won’t happen. In the days since his interview, he’s been stopped in the street by several farmers grateful to hear that it’s not just them and to know that, at last, someone’s telling it as it is.

Dairy Australia’s Neil Lane says talking about the situation is critical.

“You need to answer two big questions: how much feed to I need to source and can I afford it?,” he says. “But don’t try to manage it all on your own,” he counsels. “Get onto Taking Stock, chat to people you trust like other farmers, factory field staff, consultants, agronomists, feed suppliers and go to your local discussion group.”

Still looking for more resources? Try the:
Australian Centre for Agricultural Health and Safety (AgHealth Australia)
The National Centre for Farmer Health
Sustainable Farm Families
National Hay and Grain Report
Cool Cows

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.

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.

 

Just keep putting one foot in front of the other

I woke to the alarming smell of smoke this morning and immediately felt anxious.

But a gentle breeze stirs only the leaves of the eucalypts and there are no malevolent plumes on the horizon. We’re safe for now. The haze blanketing the farm most likely contains the ghosts of the great trees burning at Goongerah, far to our east. There, like here, it is tinder dry and just about everything is flammable.

All the same, the dry here is nothing compared to the drought conditions in New South Wales, where, judging by the news reports, there would be little left to burn.

Wayne shrank back in his seat last night as pictures of gaunt cattle hung on the screen and muttered, “Well, we’ve got nothing to complain about then”.

Just now, I came across an opinion piece titled Australian farmers should not be treated as a protected species and found it painful to read. A drought is like a fire that goes on and on and on and on, eating through a farmer’s soul over months and years. The economics of it – the main focus of the article – are like burns: the real hurt goes much deeper and lasts far longer. Buried in the comments that follow the story is this, from “Australian Pride”:

Well, speaking as a genuine Australian farmer, things couldn’t really get much worse right now.

The seasons have been poor for years now, the climate has gone to hell and it’s getting harder and harder to keep the soil nitrogenised. Morale is pretty bloody low to be honest.

I would think about packing it all in, but farming is all I know. Farming is hard, I lost my father Chaffey was crushed to death while he was fixing some equipment in November. I suppose I feel that I have to go on for him, but when do I say enough is enough eh? That cold beer at the end of the day doesn’t taste so good when you know that your crops are dying and the hand-outs are all you have to live on.

I have kids of my own. One of them watched their grandfather getting crushed in the machinery. How can I tell them that the farm is the best place for them? What kind of future are they going to have? Sometimes I despair. Maybe we should just give it all back to the aborigines?

I wish I had the heart to illustrate so eloquently what the story’s author could not see. But farmers do get through it, somehow. My Dad used simply to say: “You just keep putting one foot in front of the other, one foot in front of the other”.

Please, don’t say you no longer care.

A very special present from a dairy farmer’s son

Our new pastures were sown in the rain into lovely moist soil the first day after Easter. Nothing’s come up yet and although the farm is pretty green, it’s stopped raining! I can’t help checking in on the forecast every day hoping that a deluge is on its way.

Even one-year-old Alex seems to know how exciting a trip to a full rain gauge is during Autumn and, this afternoon, he arranged a special present for me.

"Mama! Mls!"

“Mama, Mama! Mils!”

Alex ran up with the “rain” he’d prepared, shouting “Mama, Mama, mills!”.

“How much?”

“Four!”

“Great work, Alex, keep it up!”

Our farm is rain-fed rather than irrigated and I must admit that I often look enviously across the valley towards neighbouring farms soaking in water during summer and critical times like these.

Typically, Aussie dairy farmers also daydream of the seemingly perfect New Zealand climate. While Australia’s dairy exports stagnated during our 12-year drought, Kiwi exports soared. This year is different. The Kiwis have had a drought of their own and without a grain industry to help them maintain their cows’ diets, milk production has plummeted.

It’s a cruel irony that the misery of our Kiwi counterparts has already begun to see the international milk prices rise and with it, our hopes for the next season.

Modern farming and nostalgia

Although I was just a tween during the 82/83 drought, I remember it vividly. That was the year the school bus was overwhelmed by a dust storm and the year my parents cancelled the newspaper deliveries just so they could be sure they’d saved every dollar they could.

It was also the first year we fed our cows grain and, gosh, it taught us a lot. Cleaning up, I stumbled across some notes written by my father’s farm consultant (and even a farm consultant was a new concept) that December:

“Feed grain, increasing slowly to 4kg, watching carefully for signs of grain poisoning.”

Grain poisoning is not funny but that little sentence make me laugh out loud. These days, cows start the season on 4kg, which is seen as pretty much a minimum supplement level, even in the flush of spring. No risk of grain poisoning there.

We manage dry spells so much better now than we did then and the cows, the farmers and even the environment are the winners. No longer are paddocks stripped bare, exposing the topsoil and all the life in it to the cruelties of the Australian summer. We graze just enough to keep the grass from becoming stalky.

This modern way of farming also means the pastures are quicker to respond to the rains when they do come. Just look at it.

Just add water...

Just add water…

Modern farming attracts plenty of critics but I think that, in many ways, the way we farm now would make our early environmentalists very proud indeed.