The CSIRO and farming in a changing climate

This is one of the worst seasons on record around here and the only thing that has made it survivable has been good, early planning.

We sold 10 per cent of our cows and planted our summer turnips in the second week of Spring to give them a chance of survival. We pushed bloody hard to get an irrigator up and running so we could create a lush oasis of millet with water from our farm dam.

IrrigatorLoRes

Most importantly, we were quick to speak with our bank manager and buy hundreds of tonnes of extra hay and silage. It was not a pretty plan. It was a survival plan in the teeth of a failed season and a milk price that is below our break even point.

We are still a long way from next Spring but the survival plan is getting us through. I can’t imagine how we would have managed without it.

Central to our planning were the CSIRO’s soil moisture maps and Pastures from Space. Combining the two tools, we could see that not only were our pastures not growing in the peak of Spring, there was little chance they could. The soil was powder dry all the way down to a couple of metres. That can only be fixed by weeks and weeks of rain.

PfromSpace

In other words, we knew we were stuffed early enough to do something about it, thanks to the CSIRO. It’s survivable if we plan early, plan well and it doesn’t happen too regularly.

Still raw with the discomfort of this experience, I was gobsmacked to hear the CSIRO’s chief executive tell the ABC’s 7.30 Report that the climate change question has been answered.

The big question still remains for this farmer: how common will this type of season be in the future? The climate modelling is just not detailed or accurate enough. All we know is that it will be drier, warmer and more unpredictable than ever. And that’s nowhere near enough information to make good decisions.

To be frank, we don’t even have a worthwhile forecast for the next fortnight or the three months ahead. The Bureau of Meteorology’s oft-reported seasonal outlook is so unreliable here, it is literally the equivalent of tossing a coin – by the Bureau’s own admission.

We need more climate information, not less. If this type of season begins to roll around every five to 10 years rather than every 20 to 50, it’s no longer going to be viable to keep doing what we’re doing.

Farmers are innovators by nature. Rather than simply howling to the wind when it’s all too late, I will do something about it. What, for sure, I don’t know. Cuts to the CSIRO’s climate and land and water divisions will make finding the answers ever more difficult.

 

 

 

 

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 calm before the perfect storm for one nervous dairy farmer

A perfect storm is brewing. Collapsing global dairy markets, a fodder shortage, and a strengthening El Nino.

Milk price uncertainty

Just across the ditch, NZ dairy farmers are drowning in despair after the dominant Kiwi milk processor, Fonterra, this week cut its farmgate price forecast to $3.85 per kilogram of milk solids, down from $5.25. The announcement followed hot on the heels of yet another set of disastrous Global Dairy Trade auction figures.

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

 

Most NZ milk is sold via the Global Dairy Trade auction and an article from Stuff.co.nz neatly explains the situation for NZ dairy farmers:

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said the news was grim, but not unexpected and many farmers would now be in survival mode.

The drop in milk price would result in $2.5 billion dropping out of rural economies, Mackle said. 

“Milk price is now half what it was in 2013/14. We calculate around nine out of 10 farmers will need to take on extra debt to keep going through some major operating losses,” Mackle said. 

“For the average farmer you are looking at covering a business loss of $260,000 to 280,000 this season but for many it will be a lot more than that.”

It would have a big impact on rural servicing businesses. Drops like this had a cascading effect through rural economies, Mackle said.

DairyNZ analysis showed the average farmer now needed a milk price of $5.40 to break even.

Just a few months ago, dairy industry analysts were forecasting a return to better international commodity prices at the end of this year but opinions seem to be changing, suggesting that there will be not one but two years of pain ahead.

What does this mean for Australian dairy farmers like me? Well, the largest processor of Australian milk, Murray Goulburn, forecast a closing (or end of year) price to farmers of $6.05kg of milk solids just before its partial ASX float. It hasn’t yet revised that closing price but its biggest competitor, Fonterra Australia, says it will announce the results of its own July price review this week.

The big difference between NZ dairy and Australian dairy is this: NZ exports 95% of the milk it produces, while Australia exports just 38% of its milk.  The Australian domestic milk market is much more stable than international commodity prices, so we don’t get the dramatic highs and lows of Kiwi farmgate milk prices. At least, that’s how it’s meant to work.

I’m certainly relieved to have locked in a bottom to the price we are paid for 70% of the farm’s milk. We now supply Fonterra Australia, which accepted our bid to join “The Range” risk management program that sees our price bob about between an upper and lower pair of prices. If the milk price does collapse, we’ll go backwards at a rate of knots but will still be farming next year.

El Nino: more feed needed and less to go round

Sadly, I can’t lock in even a portion of our rainfall. With a strengthening El Nino predicted to persist into next year, the Bureau of Meteorology calculates just a 30 to 35 per cent chance of at least average rainfall for our region from August to October. That means we’re likely to have less surplus Spring grass to conserve as hay and silage. It’s a double whammy because the El Nino also suggests we’re likely to need more fodder than normal over summer and autumn.

To top it off, hay prices are already unaffordable and quality hay is scarce.

The perfect storm

In other words, we’ll need more conserved feed than normal with less than usual to make ourselves and, very likely, starved of cash flow to pay for extra loads from far flung places.

A milk maid’s survival plan

So, what do we do? We’ve already begun adapting by selling off our less productive cows to limit our demand for feed. Thankfully, cattle prices are high right now and the sale of those 13 cows will feed the rest of the herd for three weeks. I’m also spending more time hunched in front of the computer looking for any opportunities to cut costs and keeping an eagle eye on our budget.

A brainstorming and planning session with agronomist, Scott Travers, has helped us plan for extra on-farm cropping with brassicas over summer.

Cows grazing forage rape

The cows will be grazing more brassicas this summer

We’ll be planting several types of brassicas (which belong to the same family as broccoli and cabbage) that mature at different times in a bid to have leafy greens available for the cows throughout summer. The big risk, however, is that the weather will be too tough, even for summer crops.

To deal with this, we are planning another infrastructure project inside the bounds of our new kangaroo fence. Water from our freshwater dam will be mixed with effluent from the dairy yard and pumped over the crop paddocks. It will help the brassicas survive a dry sprummer and summer then help re-establish pasture during an unreliable autumn.

This modest irrigation system will cost money but it will slash the cost of spreading the effluent and should pay for itself quite quickly during a year when visits from the hay truck could spell the difference between make or break.

A perfect storm is brewing and, here on the farm, we are trimming our sails to suit.

 

Hoarding hay while the sun shines at the solstice

June

On the first day of winter, I wrote about the threat of a super El Nino. Since then, the warning signs have faded although the Bureau of Meteorology still says there’s a 70 per cent chance of an El Nino developing later in the season.

This far into winter, it’s been a bumper. A “bumper winter” is traditionally an oxymoron but I have more grass now than in most autumns. Here we are at the winter solstice bathing in sun!

This morning's view across the swamp

This morning’s view across the swamp

It’s a chance to hoard the precious stocks of silage we conserved last spring. A deliciously dry, warm winter is often the silver lining to a desiccating dry summer.

DropletsOnWire

 

 

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.