Go home, Mother Nature, you’re drunk

WaterDryIn April and May, we were using the very last of our dam water in a desperate attempt to get grass out of the ground. Two weeks ago, we had floods and the cows missed two milkings, trapped on the flats despite valiant attempts to bring them home.

FloodJune22fjord

Then, just last week, we had snow.

SnowyHills

We even went up to the nearby hills so five-year-old Alex could see snow for the first time.

SnowAlex

It’s been a crazy year so far but I refuse to be cowed by mud.

mud

I’m celebrating the recharging of our dam for summer. It got very, very low but now is back.

DamSun

I’m also celebrating the snatch of spring we felt between the floods and the snow. With it came the magic of balloonists and their silks drifting across the river flats.

Most of all, it’s bringing the hope of a good season when we need it so desperately. We cannot afford to buy in hundreds of tonnes of hay again this year. A failed season like last year would spell disaster in the jaws of a crushingly low milk price. To survive, we need to grow more grass than ever.

Landgate’s Pastures from Space tool confirms it’s been a difficult start to the year, with pasture growth rates actually even worse than last year’s failure. The thick red line represents an average year, the blue one is last year and the black one is the year to date.

PasturesFromSpacePGR

The outcome is even more stark when you look at the cumulative amount of feed grown. Again, red is average, blue is last year and black is this year. Last year the farm grew half the amount of grass it grows in an average year and this year sits below even that low water mark – so far.

PasturesFromSpaceTDM

As you can see from the two charts, things need to get better, fast. I’m really optimistic that we are seeing a turnaround.

Up until now, the rain we’ve had has been simply replenishing the parched subsoil rather than growing much grass. It needs to happen because unless the subsoil is moist, the root zone dries out in the warmth of Spring as soon as there’s any halt in rainfall.

So, how is the soil moisture looking? Check out these Australian Landscape Water Balance charts. The first one shows just how recently the soil moisture in the root zone has returned to normal. This means that, finally, the grass can grow if there’s enough sun, nutrients and warmth.

AWAProotzone

The good news is that while the subsoil is not as wet as the root zone, it’s returned to about average. The one to watch still is the deep soil moisture, which as you can see from the chart below, still has a way to go.

AWAPdeep

Mother Nature may be behaving like a drunk but, while it’s raining, I’m not complaining.

The silver lining to the big dry

FloodJune14Std

I thought we’d “only” had 93mm but it was actually more like 144mm (that’s more than 5 and half inches) in three days. Normally, that would have been a massive disaster. Instead, it’s moderate flooding and, so long as the weather gods hold their tempers for a while, we’ll have dodged a bullet.

Such a relief.

I put our narrow escape down to the lingering effects of the exceptionally dry summer and autumn of 2012/13. While the pastures were green last week, you only had to dig down a few inches before the soil became very dry. The catchment sopped up most of this rain like a giant jade sponge before it got to the waterways.

The weather bureau is forecasting a warmer and wetter than average winter and although it has very little confidence in that seasonal rainfall outlook, the forecasters are actually very good at predicting temperatures. A warm winter would be welcome indeed. Fingers crossed!

A purple blister on the weather map is coming to get us

Holy cow

Holy cow

It’s not a good sign when the local weather forecaster gets a spot on ABC Radio’s National news. Our forecast is so shocking that, yes, it made headlines today.

A massive chunk of Victoria is about to go underwater and, with it, a massive chunk of our farm. We’ve had an inch of rain in the last two hours and the prediction is for between 51 and 102mm tomorrow, followed by another 20 or 30mm over another couple of days.

I’m thankful for the undulations at the southern end of the farm. The cows will at least be safe.

I’m also thankful for the Bureau of Meteorology’s timely warnings. It gave us time to:

  • Set up safer paddocks for the cows
  • Ask Scott, the grain merchant, to deliver more feed before we get flooded in
  • Remove the power units from the electric fences on the river flats
  • Bring all the eight new calves born during the last 48 hours into the warmth of the poddy shed
  • Stock up at the supermarket
  • Pile the verandah high with dry kindling and wood to keep the kids warm

As the flood sets in, we’ll be:

  • Offering extra TLC for newborns and freshly-calved cows
  • Feeding out more of our precious and rapidly dwindling stock of hay while hitting the phones looking for more ridiculously scarce fodder
  • Keeping an even keener eye out for mastitis
  • Walking the cows extra gently to the dairy to reduce the risk of lameness
  • Hoping like hell that the damage to the fences and tracks isn’t too bad
  • Monitoring the condition of paddocks to minimise pugging (mud, mud, mud)
  • Stocking the dairy snack bar with a bottomless supply of soup and raisin bread

It’s often said that good farmers only worry about what they can control. I’ll do my best!

The morning after

I lay awake listening to rain on the roof and when dawn broke, this was the view that greeted Alex and me yesterday.

Flood June 4

No better than the day before – even the water troughs disappeared!

Wayne was in Melbourne, Zoe still curled up in bed. The cows were missing their milker, Clarkie, who was on the other side of the flood waters. Sticklers for routine, they’d started coming into the yard and would not be happy! As soon as Zoe woke, we packed breakfast and headed off in the car, looking for a way through.

Flooded road

The most likely option

I sat contemplating the water for a couple of minutes and turned back – not worth the risk. After about three-quarters of an hour of back road exploration, we made it to town! A quick call to Clarkie and he was on his way.

Yay! Our patience is rewarded![/caption]

The cows were milked a few hours late but everyone was safe and Zoe made it to school in time for morning tea. The rest of the day was spent hunkered down with farm consultant Matt, poring over spreadsheets, while Alex entertained us with his antics. The waters are still quite high today but this afternoon’s farm tour will reveal the extent of the damage.

All part of the thrills and spills of life on the land and I guess we had better get used to it – if the scientific community has it right, the climate rollercoaster will only get more and more “exciting”.

Two floods in ten days

My kitchen is a picture of domestic bliss: gingerbread men fashioned by Zoe in the oven, chicken curry in the pressure cooker. But the reality is that Zoe is home early from school because the roads to town are sure to be cut by now with the second flood in 10 days.

The second flood

Groundhog day

A neighbour tells me he tipped 94mm out of the gauge this morning and it hasn’t stopped raining since. The cows are on high ground (as is the house, thankfully) but they ate those pastures out only a week ago to give the flats a chance to recover and the grass is still short.

What will we do? Redo our budgets, then call the gravel contractor to get first in line for track repairs, followed closely by the fodder supplier.

The cows will have soft, tender feet so we’ll have to take them extra gently along the tracks and we’ve already earmarked a “sacrifice” paddock to spare our saturated soils from pugging and compaction.

None of this would be too, too terrible if it was November but it’s only June 4 and as the wry @Hoddlecows noted on Twitter, optimism about the new season seems to be washing away with the flood waters.

Spongey paddocks and rocky roads

This is what the farm looked like a week ago.

May flood

The first flood of the season

In the short term, it’s bad news in the form of fence repairs, lost gravel and porridgey paddocks. In the long term, it’s what has shaped and maintains this beautiful landscape.

The floodwaters bring silt and nutrients that build deep chocolatey soils bursting with life. The alluvial soils seem perfectly adapted to the floods too. Rather than succumb to saturation, they drain quickly but hold back just enough moisture to sustain pastures year-round.

Enough romanticism though – the focus is now on resurfacing the track to avoid a herd of tender-footed cows!

Santa rides a grader

This is what our cow track looked like after the floods a few weeks ago:

Track after the July floods

Track after the July floods

Thanks to the arrival of the grader, this is how it looks this morning!

Repaired cow track

After the grader!

The tracks – flood affected or not – have needed attention. Zoe and I had devised a game where we sang songs as the UTV bobbed over the corrugations and let our voices quaver.

The tracks were “good enough” though and we spent our farm budget on other things. The floods changed all that and, rather than spend tens of thousands of dollars on fresh gravel, we’ve taken the more conservative route of grading first, then seeing what else needs to be done in autumn.

For now, it feels like Christmas has come early. We practically glide along the tracks and can sing “Zoe Macdonald had a farm” at the tops of our voices without the slightest wobble!

Getting ready for another downpour (will it flood again?)

Signs of the flood on gates

The hallmarks of the last flood remain while we prepare for the next one

We’ve been flat chat the last couple of days, preparing for the rain forecast for tonight and this week: another couple of inches, although the expected totals seem to be changing every few hours. I suspect this means it could be anything!

Fresh sawdust has been added to the calf shed while it’s dry. We’ve been grazing the most low-lying and distant pastures first, while setting up temporary fences on the higher ground. Repairs to the fences on the river flat have been called to a halt for now. Extra silage has been delivered while it’s accessible.

In fact, any outdoor job that could be done is being done. Now we can only cross our fingers.

 

The aftermath of the flood

I haven’t posted for a while because the flood left the farm in a big mess that will take time – and a lot of money – to put right. The most obvious cost will be in track repairs.

Farm track after the flood

Farm track after the flood

The other big piece of vulnerable infrastructure is fencing. So, when I went looking for a fresh paddock while Clarkie rounded up (nothing like a little pressure, eh?), I decided to cross the gully and check on the boundary fence. Gone.

Dashed back across the gully towards the track and, after 10 minutes of showering Zoe, Alex and myself in mud, had to concede defeat. What a miserable day. Nowhere to put the cows, the tractor stuck at the other end of the farm with a tyre blowout, the tracks, the fences…

Bogged farm UTV

The Bobcat slid in the mud for 10 minutes before we pronounced it bogged

On the long march homewards, a pair of kookaburras began to cackle. Zoe said, “Listen Mama, they’re laughing at you for trying to cross the gully and getting bogged.” I felt instantly better.

What a fool I was. Feeling sorry for myself while holding the hand of my lovely little girl with my baby son on my chest as we walked through glorious country in the winter sun. It’s all about perspective.

Floods, bogs and mud, mud, mud

Flood 22 July

Partial view of the flood from the house this morning

The rain came…again. Yesterday, Yarram airport received 48.5mm and today, all the roads to town are closed, a third of the farm is cut off with at least another four paddocks underwater and the car is still sitting bogged in the driveway. Thankfully, the house is nice and high, so no sand bags needed (but thanks for the offer, Julie and Doug)!

Most of this is a temporary inconvenience. The good news is that the local rivers are short and empty into the sea quickly, so the roads should be open again in the next day or so. More important is the longer lasting issue of saturated pastures and muddy tracks.

Saturated pastures (they were already saturated before this jolly east coast low pressure system decided to pay us a visit) are very vulnerable. The damage done now by cows’ hooves will cause compaction of the soil so that, come summer, water will run off rather than soak in and roots will find it harder to penetrate the soil, exposing them to heat and denying them sub-surface moisture. If you’re a gardener, you’ll understand!

Muddy pastures and tracks are also a perfect recipe for lameness and mastitis, both painful conditions that are difficult and expensive to treat.

Of course, sopping wet soil is also no good for growing grass, which means we must step up our imported feed. This means more cost, long days and heavy tractors on fragile pastures.

Those weather gods need an urgent performance review so they can refocus on their KPIs!