On your marks for Spring on the farm

Spring starts tomorrow

Spring starts tomorrow

I’m excited. Fertiliser’s going on, calves are still being born and raised, almost all of the milkers are in and we are joining again with an eye to the next generation. The grass is growing a new leaf every seven days and, before we know it, the silage harvest will start.

This is the make or break time of year when everything has to be done right. Miss cutting a paddock of silage by a week and it could mean buying in expensive fodder later, miss a cow’s readiness to mate and it could cost you $250 in lost milk, miss a problem calving and it might cost a cow’s life.

All our skills are tested in Spring – from biology through to animal behaviour – so we need tools to help us.

We stick “scratchy tickets” on each cow’s back to make it easier to see when she’s ready to mate. Okay, she’s got no chance of winning the lottery but the silver coating of these stickers gets rubbed off when other cows leap onto her back in response to her hormonal cues, revealing hot pink, yellow or orange tell tales underneath.

The results of summertime soil tests and the advice of our agronomist allow us to maximise the performance of our pastures while minimising the impact on the environment.

Knowing when silage involves crawling around the paddocks keeping a close eye on grass growth, then entering the results into a clever little “Rotation Right” spreadsheet devised by our guru friends at DEPI.

But raising calves and watching over expectant cows? That’s a whole lot of tender care, time and generations of farming knowledge (yes, yes, combined with the latest advances in science).

This is when a farmer really knows she’s alive!

Changing down to go up a notch

It seemed Mother Nature had played a classic nasty trick on us: the false break.

Each autumn, we take a punt on when the first downpour that heralds regular rains has arrived. Too early and some seed just won’t germinate costing us thousands in fresh seed and fertiliser, too late and we could miss out on autumn growth altogether, costing us thousands in replacement feed.

We get it right most of the time but when the early rains aren’t followed up with more, we end up with the worst of all worlds: seedlings shrivelling in the sun. That’s the way it was shaping up this season until we got 26mm of rain just the other day. Wow, what a relief and what a difference it makes.

The rains have come and the farmer and her cows are ecstatic!

The rains have come and the farmer and her cows are ecstatic!

Oddly enough, this means the cows will get less rather than more grass in the short term. This follow up rain was our signal to pile on the fertiliser across a huge slab of the farm to ensure the grass gets ahead before falling temperatures and longer nights slow growth once more. While the fertiliser does its job, we have to keep the cows away, limiting them to a smaller than normal area for grazing.

Just another couple of weeks to go, moos – until then, it’s a smorgasbord of grain, hay and silage.

Timing makes good suppliers golden

Healthy oats where it's not too wet

Healthy oats where it's not too wet

Too much water has stunted these oats

Too much water has stunted these oats

On Monday, I realised a fantastic opportunity was about to pass me by. For months now, most of our newly sown pastures have sulkily refused to grow in their sodden paddocks. The wet interferes with their ability to take up nutrients from the soil and also prevents me getting fertiliser on. Each of the massive fert trucks weighs 8000kg unloaded! Not pretty if they get bogged.

All the same, I decided to take a walk and survey the scene up close. I was astonished to find three of the paddocks were just trafficable but, with 25 to 30mm of rain forecast over the next few days starting in the next few hours, they wouldn’t be for long. A quick call to fertiliser supplier Robert had the urea and potash on in two hours.

Timing is everything in farming because we’re at the mercy of the very temperamental Mother Nature. That’s why we rely so heavily on the responsiveness of our suppliers; from the people who plant the seed just in time for a break in the weather (thanks Wayne) to the vets who rush to the aid of our cows in an emergency.

Thanks guys – you are appreciated.

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.