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.


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.


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.





Why you shouldn’t write a blog

It’s a lot of fun writing the Milk Maid Marian dairy blog and I’d love to see more Australian dairy farmers blogging too.

When I get a few minutes to talk to other dairy people at the Australian Dairy Conference in a few weeks, I’m hoping one or two will be inspired to begin the conversation online. But why should they? The 365-day commitment of dairying makes them very busy people by definition. And why should we constantly have to justify ourselves to everyone else as one reader of The Land asked?

“The Aussie Farmer has to wonder if he has any hope when people supposedly representing us – such as Matt Linegar in his role with the NFF perpetuate the idea that we need a “social licence to operate”. Wake up! Australian food is some of the best food in the world – grown at world quality standards. If you run off the Australian farmer through whatever measure – you are still going to need to eat. Where is the food going to come from then? Will they give two hoots about “social licences”? Truly hungry people care about not starving. Another cost we will be expected to bear.”
Posted by Frustrated Farmer, 9/01/2012 10:54:23 AM

The Frustrated Farmer makes quite a few points in this single paragraph. First, Australian food production is world-class and should be appreciated; second, we need to produce food; and then there’s the hint that maybe our leaders ought to be handling the advocacy on our behalf. All good points.

I write the blog because I am disappointed that there’s so little available online for consumers who don’t swallow the misinformation of extremist groups without asking questions. I’m really grateful that there are Aussies out there who care enough about the things that matter to me (animals, country living, the land and great food) to want to know more about what farmers do and why we do it.

I also admire the men and women who give up lots of their time to selflessly represent agriculture at endless meetings or, as @payntacow does, by inviting them into their farms (aka homes) to experience farming first-hand. Then, there are the thousands of other dairy farmers who donate their time to the CFA, the SES or the kindergarten fundraising committee. This is something I cannot do, so I write the blog.

The generosity of people from all walks of life is a constant source of inspiration. If you’re a dairy farmer thinking of blogging, do it if you want to but, for goodness’ sake, not if it’s just another impost.

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”.