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.

Work with me to look after our cows

I want to give every one of our cows a better life. It may sound grandiose but I think of myself as their guardian.

BoldHeiferLoRes

I am not a corporation, not a money-hungry investor looking to tear a quick buck off the backs of our cows. No, I am in this for the long-term, not five years or a decade but for the generations beyond mine. Every time I plant a new trailer-load of trees, I imagine the deep shade they will cast when my children reach middle age.

How we planted trees 40 years ago

How we planted trees 40 years ago

Every calf we rear is fed with enough colostrum to bless her with a long and healthy life, not just until market day. And the herd is scrupulously isolated from disease like BJD, not just for now, but for generations of cows to come.

No rest for the mother of twins

A perfect multi-tasking mother cow!

I’m not an aberration, not a monster, just a farmer doing her best. So don’t tell me I am cruel if you don’t understand – or approve of – the way I care for our animals. Sit alongside me in the paddocks and, together, perhaps we can work out a better way.

 

How you can tell winter is coming

New pastures are flushed with growth.

New pasture soaks up the sun

New pasture soaks up the sun

The ground is still warm and dry enough for bare feet.

TractorWork

The cows are ebullient.

ButterHeads

The brilliance of our wildlife is unmissable.

The marvellous moorhen

The marvellous moorhen

But, there’s this.

Is this the beginning of the end?

Is this the beginning of the end?

Winter is inevitable and so are rubber boots. In turn comes twisted, slithering southwards socks – enough to test the patience of a milk maid at the best of times, let alone when struggling through mud.

My trusty ones from last season have had it, so now I’m on the hunt for socks that will stay true all day long. There are plenty of great work socks for blokes but their wide toes mean uncomfortable bunches at the tips of my boots. Any recommendations?

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.

What inspires a young man to become a dairy farmer?

We received an unusual phone call the other week. A vet student with no family connections to dairy, Andrew Dallimore rang out of the blue saying he was keen to become a dairy farmer and wondered if he could ask us a few questions.

Well, what a series of questions! What were the challenges we faced becoming dairy farmers, why did we choose it, the ups and downs, where we look for knowledge and what are the pros and cons of raising children on a farm? At least, these are the ones I remember. And he took notes.

It felt like being at confessional, somehow. You have to be totally honest with someone so earnestly and diligently researching his future. Wayne and I were both immensely impressed, then gobsmacked when he offered to do a few hours work on the farm with the payment of just our thoughts and a banana!

Later, I had a look at the extraordinary “project” Andrew undertook last year and was impressed all over again. Andrew is a truly remarkable Australian so I was very pleased when he agreed to write a guest post about what inspires him to become a dairy farmer. Maybe we can learn a little about how to attract other young Aussies to follow in his footsteps. If you’re on Twitter, follow Andrew on @Farmer_vet.

Aspiring dairy farmer, Andrew Dallimore

Aspiring dairy farmer, Andrew Dallimore

I admit, that when Marian asked me if I would like to write a post for her blog that I was flattered, albeit worried. If you’ve read any of the content on here, you’ll realise that she is a bit of a bright spark (not that she’ll admit it). So hopefully I don’t kill too many of your brain cells (with my drivel) that you have spent so much time refining.

As a vet student at the University of Melbourne I have had the privilege to visit many different agricultural enterprises. Yet, dairy farmers and their families standout as some of the most inspiring people in Australia. It’s not their dashing flannelette shirts, crap splattered wellies, or even their everlasting pursuit to race the sun up every morning (and beat it!), but something else extraordinary.

Over the past 3 months I have been on a pilgrimage of sorts. I’ve been hunting down dairy farmers to hear about their pathway to farming. I feel inextricably drawn to dairy, and I’ve found these people are to be tough, dedicated, and generous beyond measure. Without knowing me from a bar of soap, dairy farmers have welcomed me into their homes, sat down and had targeted chinwags with me, and treated me as an equal while their kids watched telly, ate their tea, or just run amok.

Any question I had, as basic as it was, they answered and discussed enthusiastically. Eagerly, I listened to the trials and triumphs they went through to be successful while working, raising a family, settling into a completely different lifestyle, or turning a rundown farm into a thriving business and family home. From inherited farms, to sea-changers, and sharefarmers, they all shared similar traits. The stories were incredible.

For example, on a farm I visited up in northern Victoria I was completely blown away. A family of four milking about 300 cows on an inherited farm, with grins bigger than you can measure were some of the most astounding farmers I had met. It wasn’t the adults (who were the typical intelligent, driven, and happy dairy farmers), but the kids!

At the ripe old age of 14 their son had well over $10K in his bank from selling cow poo by the roadside, a part-time employee who helped him bag up the stuff (one of the kids from school, who unfortunately got the sack after his 3rd warning for not filling up the sacks properly), and a brilliant work ethic. His younger sister, at age 11, was being given orphaned merino lambs to her by farmers (otherwise the poor little buggers usually die in the paddock), was rearing them at home, and then selling them back to the farmers for a good profit.

These kids had impeccable manners, were bright, charismatic, and treated people as respectful equals.

Hearing and reading about people’s pathways to dairy farming has made me realise something incredible. Dairy farming isn’t just a way of life; it is life itself. It is survival by learning, adapting, producing, recycling, cooperating, and teaching on a day-to-day basis.

It is working with spectacular animals to feed the world sustainably, and support Australia. It is about raising a strong, healthy, intelligent, and generous family with humane ethics and values. There are few causes in our country that are greater than these.

Marian asked me what inspired to me start pursuing a life in dairy, and the answer is simple: Dairy farmers.

Marian also asked me what my dream is, and this answer more complex: I want to own and run my own rural veterinary practice; help run a dairy farm; heavily invest in the community I live with; and raise a strong, healthy, intelligent, and generous family on the land.

How I will get there on the other hand, is another question altogether… Hopefully with a large smile, a strong work ethic, good mentors, a little time, and plenty of elbow grease!

Divided we fall: so where to from here?

After a nose dive

Don’t worry if you fall, just get back up again.

Wayne said the other day that the farm has taught him something about resilience: live in the moment when the sun is shining and, when the hail stings your skin, think of the big picture.

But the big picture right now is confusing for this Milk Maid. The WCB war has thrust the outlook for Australian dairy into the headlines and, with it, a lot of questions.

Our co-op has offered half a billion dollars for WCB, claiming that its loss to a global player would be “a tragedy”. In its statement to the ASX, MG Co-op said:

“The combination of MG and WCB is the only option available that delivers an Australian-owned and operated company with the scale, capacity, strength and momentum to service global growth opportunities, returning profits to dairy farmers and their communities.”

In the midst of all this, the UDV hosted a farmer forum on Monday where independent dairy analyst, Dr Jon Hauser, told farmers that supporting cooperatives is a “no brainer” but has also said the golden era of dairy in Asia was “largely rhetoric” and that real progress for Australian dairy would come through cost control and increased efficiencies at the farm and the factory.

He created a stir at the forum too, simply by saying that milk prices of 48 to 50 cents per litre could not be sustained. Not popular news.

So, now that Saputo is on the cusp of announcing a new offer, prompting WCB to ask for a suspension of trade, what if Helou’s tragedy does unfold? How will the General regroup?

MG will certainly have to work harder to woo those who harbour a co-operative spirit but supply other processors. And that, I’m afraid, is something the co-op has not done well to date, in my view. Perhaps the tide is beginning to turn, reading between the lines of Helou’s interview with The Weekly Times dairy writer, Simone Smith, headlined Divided we fall:

“There is nothing stopping our farmers rallying around a well-run farmer run company that is of scale and relevance.”

“There is no law in the land against that. That’s what we are advocating. This rally around the MG foundation to create a new farmer-owned business that is really relevant to the 21st century.

“The farmers will only benefit from direct ownership and direct influence in supply chain from the farm all the way to market.”

I guess we farmers are used to falling and getting back up again.

 

UPDATE: In response to a question asked below, Dr Hauser has kindly sent me this. I don’t know how to put it – complete with charts – in the comments section, so here it is instead:

Sorry Marian, It would take me a day to properly represent my position on the Asian growth story and even more to update my analysis to the most recent trade data.

Here is a snapshot of the important data:

JH1

This is the demand growth for the developing nations. This comes from the FAO

Most of this growth has been serviced by internal development of their dairy industries.

JH2

This the export growth from the key dairy traders – Europe, US, NZ, Argentina, Australia. The average is 2 – 3 billion litres / year. Even if this has been accelerating in the past few years it is unlikely that the opportunity is more than 4 – 5 billion litres / year. I believe the average growth opportunity for the global traders is 3 – 4 billion litres but I would need to review the more recent data to check this.

YOY Production milk production growth – Million Litres
JH3

This is the year on year growth that has come from the major traders. This chart shows 15 billion litres of growth from the EU, US, NZ and Argentina from July 2010 – June 2012. The total for the period from July 2009 – June 2012 is 12 billion. In other words we saw contraction in 2009 and 2012 and that is because the milk price was low. The US and Europe turn growth on or off according to commodity and milk price (New Zealand just keeps on trucking except when it doesn’t rain).

In summary:

  • The Asia growth story is not rhetoric but the suggestion that the hole can’t or won’t be filled is.
  • The US and Europe will turn on and off milk production according to demand and price. They had no difficulty growing supply at 5 billion litres / year in 2010 / 2011 and they are already gearing up to do it again in 2014.
  • No I don’t subscribe to the analysis that has been done for the Horizon 2020 report. I believe the “Supply Gap” analysis is a flawed way of assessing Australia’s future export opportunity.

 

How we nearly lost “Papa” this Father’s Day

Today started well with freshly-baked ginger biscuits and special gifts wrapped with far too much sticky tape but almost ended with tragedy.

Wayne was guiding a calf out from among the herd towards the shed when time stopped, or at least slowed. As the blow under his left arm pit hurled him two metres across the cow yard, he had time to think “I’ll pull my head down, I’m going to hit the fence” and then, “oh no, this is it, my hips are exploding”. Then, bang, onto the concrete.

With the footy blaring from the dairy radio, Wayne lay very still right where he’d landed for a long, long time – five minutes, he thinks – and wondered what to do next. There was pain in his ribs, neck, back and hips. A tiny bit of blood in his mouth but, yes, his teeth were all okay.

In the end, the only thing to do was try to get up and, thankfully, he did.

Wayne had no warning of the collision and we’ll never know for sure what happened down at the dairy this Father’s Day. Doped up on painkillers, swathed in Deep Heat and wrapped up in blankets, but he’s alive.

The business of dairy farming and what that means for our “stock”

I don’t like to use the word “stock” when it comes to cows. The connotation is that they are simply economic units. Yes, we do rely on their milk for our living but, no, they are not simply the equivalent of black-and-white boxes in a grassy warehouse. We burn the midnight oil, holding down second jobs during tough times so the cows will never know a lean year.

A sick cow is more important than our own dinners.

Nor are male calves “low-value by-products” of dairying. Maybe for some but not for me. Absolutely not. Rather than shooting them (the economically rational path), our family chooses to make a loss rearing the bull calves for the first few days of their lives and then selling them to beef-farming locals.

In the same vein, I am not a “milk producer” but a farmer. Somehow, “producer” conjures up factories and production lines, while nothing could be further from the truth here. We nurture our animals and the land because we understand that nature is bigger than we are. Sounds trite and fluffy? Perhaps, but it’s the reality.

There is no financial reward for such an attitude and in the teeth of the economic crisis most dairy farmers have suffered in recent times, the pressure’s been on to make every conceivable saving but here’s how I look at it: if you’re not able to make a dollar out of farming this year, you should at least be able to feel good about the way you farm.

If farming this way is not viable, I would rather not be a farmer.

Help for our dairy farmers and their cows

There certainly is light at the end of the financial tunnel for dairy farmers but many are still finding the going incredibly difficult.

I’m a tough old stick but there have been times in the last few months where things unravelled a bit before I could piece myself together again, so I know how it feels first-hand. For me, the saving grace has been to get help from our expert farm consultant, Neil, and build an action plan to insulate the cows from the fodder shortage.

It’s gone beyond that for some farmers who are in desperate positions. I asked Dairy Australia’s issues manager, Julie Iommi, what the dairy farming representative bodies are doing to help.

1. Anyone wishing to donate fodder or funds to buy fodder – please contact the UDV/VFF on 1300 882 833. Want to help but have no hay of your own? Farmer mental health dynamo, Alison Fairleigh, has linked her handy blog to “Buy a Bale“, an initiative of Aussie Helpers, where anyone can donate time or money for fodder to go to people who are in dire straits.

2. VFF, supported by ADF, is pushing the state government to immediately review the resourcing to the Rural Financial Counselling network to ensure they have the capacity to deal with current demand.

3. VFF, supported by ADF, has asked the state and federal governments to introduce the low interest loan support program immediately.

4. The state and federal governments have also been requested to review other forms of emergency support immediately.

5. VFF and ADF are also pushing the state and federal agriculture Ministers to meet the bank sector to encourage them to continue to take the long-term view when assessing their support of farm businesses.

Dairy Australia is promoting the Taking Stock program, which can help dairy farmers review their individual situations and create their own action plans – Julie says there are still around 50 spots available.

DA also has good info on its site about coping with fodder shortages.

Last of all, if you know someone who might be battling to stay afloat, why not drop them a line, phone or do the good old-fashioned thing and turn up with a cake? It might be just the lifeline they need without you ever knowing it.

Work life balance on farm and a good dose of mother guilt

The slow burn of mother guilt catches me unawares sometimes but on other occasions, it’s as sharp as a knife. Or more accurately, as shrill as a tired toddler’s screech.

Just In Time (JIT) fencing

Just In Time (JIT) fencing

When a knock on the door from a concerned motorist signals a heifer and bull trotting down the road, which in turn reveals that a mob of skittish kangaroos have rendered your fence as floppy as a spoonful of fettuccine, a farmer has little choice but to report to the scene, sirens wailing. If the farmer is also the mother of a toddler, the ramifications can be far more serious: Nap Time Deferral (NTD).

Strapped to the Bobcat seat, my Little Man finds it hard to understand why Mama is singing lullabies as she fumbles with the fence strainer when she should be singing them at the bedside.

"Home, peese"

“Home, peese”

“Sorry, Little Man, I promise I’ll be as quick as I can, I just have to get this done…”

I know Mother Guilt is not limited to farming or, indeed, mothers. On Twitter’s AgChatOz forum the other day, fellow dairy farmers told of their dismay.

MotherGuilt

And, then, Shelby posted a link to this:

Cat’s in the Cradle always “gets me”, too. It’s times like these that I wonder if I am doing the right thing. My children see more of me going about daily life than they would if I was an office worker but, with farm returns so low, it seems we spend most of our time working and less of their time playing.

With the heifer paddock hastily patched up, Zoe, Alex and I returned last weekend to do the major works. As I wrestled with wire and strainers, they gambolled about the picturesque hidden paddock. Flanked by forest, they were out of the chilly wind, away from roads and so carelessly happy. I smiled as their little heads bobbed across the pastures and my spirits soared as their laughter echoed around the trees.

A gambol cures a dose of mother guilt

A gambol cures a dose of mother guilt

I was cured. Well, almost. What mother would stand back and film this?