What wildlife does for farms

Cattle Egrets

Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage follow the cows everywhere

There’s lots of wildlife on our dairy farm: waterbirds of every description, a chorus of frogs, waddling wombats and lots of lizards from the cute blue-tongue through to the vulnerable goanna!

Sometimes we curse them. Ducks gobble new pastures and crops, cockies eat seed, wombats dig cavernous holes. But we never begrudge them a home and we’re aware they have important roles to play, too. The ibis eat root-eating grubs and aerate pastures with their needle-like beaks while the army of little birds help to manage the insect population.

With this in mind, we’ve created a whole farm plan that incorporates wildlife corridors linking our big environmental assets:

  • The state forest and our remnant vegetation on our southern boundary
  • Our Land for Wildlife dam
  • The wetland
  • The revegetated gully
  • The Albert River on our northern boundary

We’re also proud to participate in the JARR project, which is creating a biodiversity blueprint for this important catchment for the RAMSAR-listed Corner Inlet.

While it’s important to justify planting trees and fencing sensitive areas from a business perspective, the farm is more than that. It’s our home and, if I’m honest about it, we protect and encourage wildlife on the farm because it makes this a much better place to live.

Intensified farming good for the environment sometimes

There is so much to learn on a farm. Aged just 5, Zoe can correctly identify plants from rye grass to melaleuca, wildlife from willy wagtails to wedgetail eagles and stock from heifers to old cows.

Yesterday, she came across the beautiful Paterson’s Curse for the first time. It’s not a problem here – the occasional plant pops up from time to time. Zoe took this pic to remind herself of it.

Patersons Curse

Patersons Curse

When I was Zoe’s age, ragwort was the weed we battled all summer. The paddocks turned a buttery yellow in late spring and the grass and other weeds on the river flat scratched at the ute windows. I haven’t seen a ragwort plant here in years and though the blackberries and thistles persist, they are at vastly reduced levels. The grass is also tamed to juicy, shin-high herbage. I think it comes down to the intensification of dairy farming in the last 30 years.

When my brother and I were out in the paddocks pulling up ragwort in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we had 120 cows on 300 acres. Now, we milk 265 cows on about the same area (with dry stock on another 200 acres), although we might be a bit overstocked. Back then, we had three paddocks and now we have 24 on the milking pastures.

Someone reminded me that Dad never paid any attention to daylight savings in the 1980s because he couldn’t find the cows in the dark in those massive hundred-acre paddocks! Now, they are contained in 3 to 4-hectare paddocks. It means the grass is far better managed and forms a thick sward that is harder for opportunistic weeds to penetrate. It also means we are more alert to changes in the pasture – there are no more “lost forests”.

Why bother being green?

Land for Wildlife dam

Our Land for Wildlife dam

Our farm dam is a real jewel. Flanked by trees planted almost 30 years ago, it’s a beautiful 8 acre stretch of water that hosts an enormous range of bird species. The farm is only about 10km from the coast and the internationally significant Corner Inlet Ramsar site, so our dam hosts both inland and sea bird life – it’s not unusual to see cygnets gliding across the ripples behind their parents while pelicans roost above them. Dad had the foresight to register the dam under the Land for Wildlife program back in the ’80s to help protect the birds.

The dam sits at the heart of the farm, which is bounded by native state forest to the south and the Albert River to its north. The farm also incorporates 27 acres of remnant forest, a wetland and revegetated gully. We’re planting more trees every year.

Why? First of all, because of the much denigrated “warm and fuzzy feeling” that giving something back to nature brings. It’s not all about economics when it comes to the place you love! Second, because I firmly believe trees add to the sustainability not just of the planet but of our small patch, creating micro-climates that will protect people, animals and pastures as we endure increasingly more variable weather patterns.

Unfortunately, it’s really expensive to plant trees – allow $7 per metre for fencing, then spray for weeds, $1.10 per tree in a tube, plus the hard yakka involved with getting them in the ground – and you’re up for thousands of dollars in the blink of an eye. That’s nothing to complain about but it does limit the amount we can plant each year.

Fortunately, we can sometimes get grants for extra plantings and some volunteer groups make the plantings physically possible. These people, like the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group should be nominated for sainthood. Last October they came to help us plant 800 trees and are volunteering to help us again this year. Not everybody walks the talk like they do!

Cows do a LOT of poo but nothing goes to waste

Cows do a LOT of poo. About 40 litres of the green stuff per day (that’s besides number ones). Because they spend all their time grazing in paddocks, most of it goes straight back onto the grass as nature’s own organic fertiliser. The stuff that gets dropped onto the yard twice a day while they’re waiting to be milked is a different matter, though. It would be environmentally wrong and illegal to let it run into waterways, so this yard manure is hosed into large ponds for storage and digestion by aerobic and anaerobic bugs.

When it’s dry during summer and autumn, we pump the effluent on to paddocks using a little travelling irrigator hooked up to a fire-fighting pump. The effluent is full of great nutrients and beneficial bugs, we save trucking in inorganic fertiliser (not to mention the concept of peak phosphorous) and avoid polluting our rivers. When the pond is just TOO full for me and the irrigator to keep up with, we engage a contractor to come and pump it out and spread it with a huge tanker.

That’s been something of a challenge this year. The tractor and fully laden tanker weigh about 45 tonnes and, because  summer was so wet, access has been very limited. In fact, they just can’t get in at the moment. The effluent spreader shook his head and suggested calling for some rock. The quarry owner shook his head and suggested calling in the grader, excavator and the bank manager. I just hung my head and looked at my boots. Then, my lightbulb moment! If I can’t get the track to the pond, bring the pond to the tanker! I’m getting the excavator in to extend the pond so it’s really close to an existing cow track. Mark, the excavator supremo, expects it to be here in a couple of weeks, so I should have some boys’ toys pics up then.