The unseen farm support crew

Wayne is one of those rather colourful yet very black and white people but, the other day, he sounded peculiarly uncertain.

“I’ve got a problem with the irrigator,” he said. “Maybe you should come and have a look.”

We’ve worked through more than our fair share of problems with irrigation in the last year.  Pipes blowing apart, toppling hydrants, underground leaks, you name it – one disaster after another – so just the mention of another drama had my blood pressure rising. I pressed Wayne for more details.

“It’s on a tilt,” he said. “Okay, don’t come and look then!” he blustered.

I figured I’d really better come and take a look.

IrrigatorWonkyLoRes

After uncoupling it from the hydrant, Wayne had been towing the irrigator away to another paddock when a wheel found the softer earth over the original trench and buried itself. You might be able to see the tyre tread just below the blue strut on the right hand side.

IrrigatorWonkyTyreLoRes

The pair of us eyed the situation warily. The irrigator had two lifting points on each side. Was this the time to call the neighbours and see if we could get a posse of tractors to round up the wily wheely waterer?

On the other hand, the irrigator is one of the most expensive bits of gear on the farm and, with thirsty crops in the paddocks, mangling it didn’t bear thinking about.

Instead, I called the local heating and plumbing service, which also happens to install power poles.

The following day, a white knight in the form of Eddy the crane truck operator arrived.

In about two minutes flat (and safely further away from the power lines than it looks on the video), he had the irrigator back on solid land, albeit still looking a little saggy thanks to a popped tyre.

“We’ll have that off and into  town pronto,” Wayne crowed with a heady mix of relief and triumph.

It turned out none of our jacks were strong enough to support the 2.5 tonne whirly gig. Cue, another distress call, this time to the tyre service.

It just went to show that no matter how self-reliant we like to fancy ourselves, keeping the wheels turning on farm relies on a squadron of support people.

So, this Christmas, we owe a big dose of gratitude to all the townies we rely on to get the milk into the tanker. Just looking through our accounts, we have all these people to thank this year:

  • agronomist
  • crop and harvest contractors
  • quarry and earthmovers
  • stockfeed supplier
  • hay supplier
  • breeding experts
  • vets
  • herd testing
  • mechanics
  • auto electrician
  • electrician
  • hardware supplies
  • bankers, insurers and accountants
  • dairy technicians
  • dairy hygienists
  • refrigeration mechanics
  • metal fabricators
  • plumbers
  • rubbish removal
  • milk processor
  • stock agents

It’s a big list that removes any doubt regarding just how many jobs dairy farms generate off farm and still doesn’t include all the people we employ via levies and taxes, like the Dairy Australia and Agriculture Victoria brains trust.

Thank you to every single one of you who’ve helped us make 2017 a success.

 

 

There’s a spring back in my step

PrairieGrass

How things have changed. The pastures are finally no longer moisture stressed and neither am I.

In a wintry week that’s likely to see snow carpet our sky line, I’m grateful for hope. The idea of another desolate season on top of 2015 and the corrosive dairy crisis had me all jittery in July.

August pretty much turned things around and the whipping rains in this, the first week of Spring, are welcome. The cows really don’t mind the cold – anything above 18 degrees Celsius is getting warm for them.

We still need a lot more rain. The dam has about a metre to go before it fills and the soils aren’t likely to make it in time for summer.

Soil moisture maps show that the root zone, which is classified as the top metre of the soil profile, remains much drier than usual.

This means that if there are lulls in the rain during the warmer Spring months, it won’t take long at all for the pastures to become stressed and slow their growth.

On the bright side, the Bureau’s three-month outlook has changed remarkably. There had been a low chance of average rainfall during Spring but, now, we have an even chance.

We’ve already locked in some standing silage and hay purchases but this more positive outlook means I won’t be on the hunt for more just yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that enough rain falls at the right time to get a good harvest of our own.

In the meantime, we’re keeping the paddocks well fertilised and grazing them to the perfect length to maximise their yields.

Unlike some dairy farmers, we graze according to leaf stage rather than the weight of grass in the paddocks. The kids and I count the leaves on a weekly “farm tour”.

Each plant can grow three leaves before dropping the first one. At the same time, each leaf is larger than the one before it. That means our aim is to let the cows into the paddock right when the grass plants have between 2.5 and three leaves each – the maximum amount of juicy new leaf matter and the minimum amount of waste.

Depending on the variety, this can look very different. Check out these two paddocks. Both were at two leaf stage and photographed this weekend, using my glamorous gumboot as a height indicator.

2leavesPRGlores

VS.

2leavesARG

Obviously, the second one looks the winner! But of course, it’s not quite that simple (it never is in farming!).

Number 2 is an an annual rye grass, which means it will need to be resown next autumn, whereas number 1 is a perennial rye grass, which should offer up to a decade of faithful service, in the absence of flood, fire and pestilence.

Each time we resow it costs money, adds an element of risk and disturbs the soil, potentially damaging its structure and the good bugs within it.

Also in the perennials’ favour is the flush of “All my Christmases have come at once” growth a sneaky summer thunderstorm can bring long after the annuals have given up the ghost.

So, you see, it’s all a bit of a balancing act. We use these flashy annuals as part of a renovation program. When a perennial is past its best and needs replacing, we spray it out in late Spring, plant a summer crop like millet or a brassica for the cows to graze when nothing else will grow, followed by an annual rye grass, another summer crop and then back to a perennial.

This program allows us to eliminate as many weeds as possible, get lime incorporated deep into the root zone and lift fertility, too.

huntercroplores

Delicious summer crop

Nothing’s assured in farming but the tide finally seems to be turning in our favour.

Solar at the dairy: how to crunch the numbers

SolarDairy

I’d love to install a solar system here on the farm but since we use most of our energy in the dark or at sunset, it’s a real challenge make it affordable. I’m really grateful to dairy energy expert Gabriel Hakim of AgVet Energy in Warragul for writing this guest post on how to crunch the numbers!

Energy Audit with Gab

Gabriel Hakim and Wayne check out the dairy during an energy audit back in 2012

With the backdrop of the recent closure of Hazelwood, and continued uncertainties over supply and prices more and more dairy farmers are asking “Can solar work for me?”.

The way electricity is consumed on most conventional dairies – early morning, late afternoon, and overnight – means it is a challenge to maximise the direct benefits of solar.  In southern Australia, most of the electricity generated by photovoltaic panels (PV) occurs between milkings, during the middle of the day.

How this electricity is used has huge implications for the economics of PV.  The three broad options are:

  1. sell all unused generated electricity into the grid;
  2. store unused generated electricity and use it later; and
  3. change the timing of electricity-using tasks so they make use of the electricity as it is generated.

The reality of course, is to deploy a combination of these options. This post explores option 1 for installing solar on an existing dairy with:

  • Twice-a-day milking. 6:00 – 9:30 am and 3:30 – 6:00 pm (includes milk cooling time)
  • 450 milkers calving all year round
  • 40-50 units
  • Conventional cooling (glycol chiller, with final direct expansion cooling in vat)
  • Conventional cleaning (warm pre-rinse, hot wash, hot final rinse) – ~1,600 l hot water/day
  • Average daily electricity consumption 450 kWh (large user)
  • Electricity charges are 22.6cents/kWh and 10.1 cents/kWh (ex GST and after discounts have been applied) for peak and off-peak respectively. Annual spend on electricity is $22,206.71 (ex GST).

How big should the PV system be? 

The optimum size depends on several things such as; the load profile, how much of your consumption you aim to off-set, the available roof space (or ground space), and how much you’re willing to invest.

For this case, let’s choose a 50 kW quality brand PV system. The going price for this roof-mounted system on a tilt frame is $59,545 (ex. GST) net of RECs.  And, from July 1, 2017 the feed-in tariff rate increased to 11.3 cents/kWh.

Whilst the calculations for the economic analysis might be straightforward, the real challenge is making realistic assumptions about power usage.

Unfortunately, many solar systems salespeople don’t have a good appreciation of dairying and I have seen too many instances where the intended outcomes are never realised because of poor or incorrect assumptions.

For the example dairy, the maximum proportion of PV generated electricity that can be consumed directly is 48% because the bulk of the electricity generated is typically between 11:00 am and 3:00 pm, when very little or no equipment is operating.  To increase the proportion of direct consumption would require shifting tasks to this timeslot – option 3, to be discussed in another post.

The PV system

PV system Size 50 kW PV capital cost $59,545
Average annual electricity generation  72,560 kWh Simple payback period 5.8 years

GabrielSolar1Table

Even with 48% of the generated electricity being directly consumed – and 52% being exported – the annual savings are substantial, $10,613 in year 1. The simple payback period for this investment is 5.8 years. Higher tariffs or future price increases would make the payback shorter.

The “take-home” lesson here is that the more you can consume directly the better the financials stack up.

If the PV system was bigger, say 80 kW, you might be able to capture a little more for direct use during the winter months but you will be simply exporting more to the grid. It is still financially attractive but requires more investment (~$95,300) and payback time is extended by about six months.

Financing solar
The financial indicators above assume farmers have the money to fund this investment stashed under the pillow (we all wish it was).

Fortunately, over the last three years or so the financing market has become far more amenable to funding energy related equipment. The number of institutions that offer products targeting this space seems to grow every month.

The Sustainable Melbourne Fund (http://sustainablemelbournefund.com.au/), for example, has broadened its focus to regional areas and is very interested in getting involved in the agricultural sector. They were really impressed by the environmental credentials of the Green Cleaning System I designed a few years back.

A cashflow-neutral investment
Financing an investment such as this can be very attractive as the savings in the electricity bills can be used to service the repayments. By negotiating a low (interest) rate and reasonable term length (5-7 years), these types of projects can become cashflow positive from the very first bill.

If we were to finance the above 45 kW PV system over a 7-year term, the fixed monthly repayments would be $846 equating to $10,152 per year. If we manage to achieve 40% or more direct consumption of the PV generated electricity, then this project would be “cashflow neutral” or even slightly positive from the outset. After seven years, the saving can be banked.

So, “Should I go solar?” is worth thoughtful consideration. The option presented here is the least financially attractive of the three options but still has merit. Ensure that any assumptions made are directly relevant to your situation. Do your homework and don’t hesitate to seek advice.

Thank you, Gabriel, and Milk Maid Marian looks forward to the next installment of solar smarts.

Planning for life at the end of the tunnel

eucolilores

It’s all been about survival for an exhaustingly long time but, now, I’m focused on life at the end of the tunnel.

Oddly enough, an hour of my time spent answering a researcher’s questions about the way we feed our cows was more valuable than any length of time spent on a red velvet couch. It reminded me of our goals, how far we have come and, most importantly, that I have not given up and we are still making progress. Even this year.

As much as my wheezing body will allow, I’m pounding away at the keyboard and in the paddocks working on survival but edging towards something far better. Although my old uni lecturers would decry the haziness of our goals they are crystal clear to me:

  • less stress
  • more time together

What’s needed?

  • greater profitability, so we are less tied to our work
  • greater resilience in the face of increasingly unpredictable seasons and milk price

We have a three-pronged strategy to achieve those lofty aims, all supported with specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely objectives neatly laid out in a proper business plan. It’s an invaluable little sheaf of papers that’s proven priceless in a year when it all seemed pointless.

I’ve learnt an important lesson: when you’ve got your head down, it’s more important than ever to look up and keep your eyes fixed on the horizon.

How Gallipoli put Grandpa on the land

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

Grandpa is the little boy in the gateway

My grandfather, Harry, first saw Melbourne on his way to Gallipoli. I imagine it felt like a ticket to a new life after a childhood framed by tragedy.

When his mother died giving birth to his brother, little Harry was left in the care of his Irish grandmother. He worked her hillside farm hard and, at one stage, never left the property for the good part of a year. The stories my own father passed down to me spoke of a Harry abandoned by his father and shown little pity.

When war came, Harry became an ANZAC light horseman and carried water to the front line. My aunt Heather says dysentery “saved him” from the Western front and nearly a year later, he was home and regarded as a man.

In 1917, Harry applied to secure a parcel of land under the soldier settlement scheme. The inspector recommended against it and his report forewarns of a battle too great for a returned soldier.

GrandpaSoldierSettler4cropLoRes

Mr Dermody’s advice made sense. I’ve been there many times and tried to imagine how it must have been 100 years ago. The valley is sweet but the property, known as Yosemite, does indeed reach up “precipitous” faces lined with cattle track terraces. Impossible country to farm with a tractor, nigh-on impossible with a fern hook and crosscut saw.

Although still recovering from dysentery and the psychological damage of war that he called “neurasthenia“, Harry’s ambition is palpable in his own submission.

GrandpaSoldierSettler6crop

Against the odds, Harry made it. And after his first two children were born around 15 years later, he built a new house with his bride, Pearlie, in the foothills down the valley.That is the place I remember when I think of Grandpa. Heather recalls her father wanting to sign up again in 1939 only to be told farmers were to remain on the land. So, she says, he resolved to buy the land we farm now in order to “do his duty and grow more food”. A notion almost incomprehensible in this era of plenty.

It’s to that lonely boy’s courage in the face of battle – both on the shores of Gallipoli and later in the hills of Gippsland – that I owe this farm. I will not forget.

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

Making the wet worthwhile

Not quite monsoon weather

Not quite monsoon weather

I’m writing this post hoping to be embarrassed by calling this a flop of a monsoon trough. Earlier in the week, we were promised 5 inches of rain by now but we’ve clocked up about a tenth of that in five days of drizzle with perhaps an inch or so supposedly delayed in traffic still to come.  Not that I would ever look a gift horse in the mouth, of course!

The gift of a good soaking in summer is precious indeed. We don’t irrigate here so rely totally on what falls from the heavens and our farm is set up to make every drop count. The silver lining of greater climate volatility is more summer downpours. We have sown deep-rooted perennial pastures, including the heat-loving tall fescue and cocksfoot, throughout the farm. These pastures respond almost instantly to rain in summer and increase our resilience to an increasingly tricky climate.

Bring it on!

Secrets of a happy life revealed and it was here on the farm all along

“If your New Year resolution is to be happier, make your priorities fruit, nature, sun and sleep.”

This simple prescription for a happy life stems from Otago University research reported in the NZ Herald this morning.  Sounds a lot like farm life, doesn’t it?

From all of us here on the farm, have a wonderful 2015!

Before we say goodbye to 2014 though, I’d like to pay tribute to our wonderful fellow Landcarer, Margaret Ferguson, who helped us plant trees this summer and tragically lost her life in a farm accident this month. I still can’t believe this magnificent lady is gone but she would be delighted to see how well our trees have already grown.

The trees arrived in September

The trees arrived in September

 

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

The grass was sprayed to give the plants a head start

 

We finished planting in the first week of October

We finished planting in the first week of October

 

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

Giving the trees a helping hand when it got dry was noisy work

 

Look how much they've already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

Look how much they’ve already grown: the same trees on Boxing Day 2014

 

RIP Margaret. We miss you.

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

RIP Margaret Ferguson: a passionate fellow Landcarer (Photo courtesy of Kaye Proudley)

 

Singing in the rain: a pony introduces herself to the herd

Meet our newest family member, Dixie the divine.

DixieYesterday, the cows were in the house paddock for the first time since Dixie came to live with us and they were intrigued to meet her, lining up by the horse paddock and bobbing their heads in astonishment at the strange “brown cow that whinnies”.

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

The stars of the show line up to meet the new Queen

It was a misty, drizzly morning and while the cows and Dixie were separated by perhaps 50 metres of paddock, the effect was magnetic. Dixie whinnied. The ladies mooed. And so on for a good half hour. Continue reading

Why Landcare matters

It’s one of my earliest memories. Mum, Dad, my little brother and I took a tiny tree wrapped in paperbark down the paddock and planted it by the bank of the gully. It was a big affair that must have taken an hour by the time we got there, assembled the guard and wandered home again.

But that’s what “tree planting” meant back then and here is the very same tree today.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

A tree just about as old as the Milk Maid

Everything changed in my teenage years when we joined 20 or so of our neighbours to visit a nearby farm criss-crossed with healthy young stands of trees. John and Gayle had created an oasis on a windy flat. It was the first Landcare event I can remember and Dad and I came away totally inspired. He set about planting trees.

An aerial photo of the farm in 1994 shows young trees emerging around the dam but little else. It was still a blank canvas but there was a sniff of success.

The centre of the farm in 1994

The centre of the farm in 1994

Can you see a few trees along a rough line in the centre of the picture? It’s a denuded gully that now looks like this, thanks to Dad’s hard work and a Landcare grant that went towards his costs:

The gully 20 years later

The gully 20 years later

During my six-year-custodianship, we’ve planted nearly 10,000 trees and re-fenced our 11 hectares of forest with the help of Landcare, the local catchment management authority, the shire and Greening Australia. Although the funding sources are diverse, it’s all happened because of Landcare as the group acts like a triage service, matching funding sources with farm projects. The funding doesn’t cover everything but it does make it possible, especially with practical help from other Landcarers.

Landcare continues to inspire. In the last few years, our local Landcare group has created a grand vision that brings together the work of individual farms: creating wildlife corridors that stretch from the forest to the river to the foothills across farms, linking precious remnants to provide a network of habitats. And it’s working. Together, we can see that it’s not just our own farms that are changing, it is the entire landscape.

In this, the 25th Anniversary of Landcare, the Commission of Audit has recommended halving its funding – just as this powerful grass-roots volunteer movement has really begun to make a difference. Do you care? I do.

Bruce and Zoe planting in late October

Bruce and Zoe planting trees in October 2011

Progress: peeping through the same trees two and a half years later.

Progress: peeping through the same trees two and a half years later.