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.

Feeling stressed? Come and sit in the grass with the cows

“What’s so special about that?” asked Zoe. “Nothing, and that’s why I thought we should put it on the blog.”

Apart from the twice-daily walk to and from the dairy, this is how our cows spend their time.

You won’t see footage like this anywhere else, I suspect, and certainly not on 4 Corners. There’s nothing sensational about it except perhaps that, right before your eyes, these cows are transforming grass into one of nature’s wonder foods (while wondering what the hell I’m doing sitting on their breakfast).

What heaven looks like for a dairy cow

Last night I’d just finished setting up a fresh paddock for the cows when the first of our ladies to leave the dairy strolled in.

Black and white bliss

Black and white bliss

I reckon I could have sat on this cow’s back stark-naked playing the banjo for all she cared. She was in a heaven all her own. Her herd mates weren’t far away though and when they saw what was waiting for them…

It’s only the second time they’ve grazed this newly-renovated pasture and they love it. The grass comes with a special type of fungus called the AR37 endophyte, which makes the grass naturally more resistant to pests (with huge environmental gains). Endophytes are nothing new but, traditionally, they come at a cost: the taste test. Cows seem not to like the old endophytes as much and they can even cause health issues for the cows.

AR37, on the other hand, is meant not to have any impact on palatability or cow health and, judging by the cows’ reactions, I’d say they’d give it three Moochelin stars!

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.

Plastic in the paddock

I may not be able to look my fellow farmers in the eye after publishing the next photo, especially those of the calibre of @Hoddlecows of Montrose Dairy, for I have committed a dairy farming sin.

Grass ready for ensiling

Not quite “the more the merrier”

If you ever needed proof that farmers are a hard lot to please, this is it: we want our grass to be lush but not this lush. It’s past its best and I should never have let it get so long. Now that it is this long, I should not be spending lots of money to have it cut, tedded, baled and wrapped in plastic to create that fermented delicacy called “silage”. It’s too crappy. Oh, the tut-tutting.

How did I get to this point? Well, the farm has been so wet that I simply wouldn’t have been able to get this paddock grazed without bogging a few bovines along the way, so I just looked the other way until we had this tiny window of almost-good-enough silage-making weather. I’m told it’s only me and one other farmer on the other side of town who have ventured into silage making around here so far this season.

“Fools rush in…etc, etc, etc.”

Thankfully, the team at Bowden’s Ag Contracting got it done for us, just in the nick of time. Even though it’s creating more mud and misery out there, it sure feels good listening to the rain on the roof tonight, knowing that it will be pattering on plastic in the paddock. So there!

The perfect farmer’s body

What does the perfect body look like? Not mine, that’s for sure! Yesterday, I was reminded just how bad my genes are for farming. Allergies run on both sides of my family and the worst irritant of all looks like this:

Yorkshire fog grass

Yorkshire fog grass: one UK expat we could do without!

I’m told it’s called “fog” grass because the pollen is released in such huge quantities, it makes everything go misty. Dynamite! Yesterday, I had to wander through thigh-high forests of it to get the dam siphon running again. My scalp, eyes, nose, mouth and arms are all still desperately itchy 15 hours later.

The cows don’t like it either. Fog grass is covered in thick velvety “fur” that understandably is most unpalatable.

Thankfully, we have a lot less of this hideous grass nowdays. It was everywhere when I was a girl but much better grazing management has seen it restricted to untouched pockets of dampness (like the dam wall).

Grass management is a big deal for Australian dairy farmers because it is the greatest predictor of profitability. We count leaves, we estimate the tonnes of pasture in paddocks and aim for the magic nexus of quality and quantity. Somehow, it’s reassuring to know that nothing beats the simplicity of grazing grass for high performance dairy farming, even in 2012.

People and animals tell the farm’s story

This was Zoe on the Bobcat as I moved the electric tape in paddock 6 on Friday. It really was sunny enough to dig out the zinc!

Yes, two pairs of oversized sunglasses are apparently “hot” right now

I’d been away from the paddock for a week and things had got away. It’s newly sown to a high performance grass and zoomed off once the saturated soil turned to plasticene over a balmy few days. We had to get the cows in at once if there was any chance of keeping grass quality levels up over Spring.

At this time of the year, it’s really important to divide the paddock into small strips. Let them into the whole lot at once and most will be wasted as the engorged cows make nests to sleep it off. The trick is to have the cows absolutely full to pussy’s bow, but only just. It’s good for the cows, good for milk production and good for the grass.

The grass on the right has just been grazed, the grass on the left is for dinner

Grass growth will have come to a skidding halt over the last couple of glacial days though. Everything is mushy and muddy all over again. Including Patch.

Whadda you mean I can’t come inside?


 

What we feed our dairy cows

When I think of feed for our dairy cows, I think of grass. Unlike cows in much colder climates, ours live in the paddocks all year round and pasture is the “bread and butter” of their diets. Really, apart from hay baled in the summer and fed out in the depths of winter, that’s all our cows used to eat when I was a kid.

Everything changed, though, when a vicious drought desiccated Australia in 1982/83. That year, a massive dust storm blanketed Melbourne, ensuring that even inner-city dwellers felt the searing fury of mother nature. Like their neighbours, Mum and Dad cut every expense they could, right down to cancelling their newspaper subscription.

In desperation, they turned to grain to supplement the cows’ diets. And never looked back. We’re lucky in Australia to have such great wheat growers practically on our doorsteps. With grain at reasonable prices, we are able to buffer our cows from mother nature’s tantrums, keeping our cows well-fed, no matter whether it rains too much or too little. It also means our cows are able to produce more milk from less land – something that’s increasingly important as the population continues to climb.

Just as I created a breakfast for Zoe with the right building blocks of protein, fibre and carbs this morning, we offer the cows fibre, starch, protein and energy in the form of hay, silage and GM-free grain to top up their grass. So yes, Australian dairy cows are still pasture-fed but, these days, their diet has just a little added variety.

As the grass grows golden everything changes again

Feed bails

The new feed ration ready for tonight's diners


I shouldn’t admit this but I use the lawn as a bit of a guide to pasture growth rates. Our lawn is far from manicured and includes just about every grass species known to man. Of course, it’s not grazed either, so it’s really easy to see how it is performing. And, this week, we raised the mower’s cutter deck in an attempt to preserve its greenness.

That’s not to say I don’t watch the paddocks like a hawk. Out on the farm, we’ve been battling to prevent the grass from bolting to head, raising seed heads atop stalky stems that fill the cows with fibre rather than goodness. The seed heads also signal senescence – a type of hibernation for grass – dramatically reducing growth rates.

It means that rather than being able to graze a paddock, say, every 21 days, we must rest it for up to 60 days when summer really kicks in. To manage this, we strip graze the paddocks so the cows get a much smaller yet still fresh portion each day. With less grass on offer, we must make up the daily ration with supplementary feed. I have some gorgeous vetch hay waiting in the shed and there’s all that silage we baled just a few weeks ago.

My first step though is to lift the amount of grain we’re feeding to balance out the increasing fibre in the grass. Just a 1kg boost – easy enough to turn up the dial but, oh, what a performance it turned out to be!

The feed system is governed by a timer rather than a checkweigher, so we have to guess how much extra time to dial up, scoop samples into buckets, weigh and review if necessary but the scale’s batteries were flat. Determined to get it right though, I dumped a 1 litre juice bottle on top of a bucket of the current ration and, with Clarkie’s help, set up a rudimentary scale with a scrap metal rod suspended from a roof truss with hay band. It wasn’t glamorous but it worked a treat!

All I want for Christmas now is a yard hydrant wash system, an underpass and a pasture meter like Graeme’s.

Spluttering spring means we start silage three weeks late and take a punt

Silage mower

Cutting grass in style

It’s been so cold and wet that the grass has been slow. We would normally have been seeing the grass take off three weeks ago and have a few hundred rolls of silage.

I’m a bit concerned that rather than simply being late, Spring will be brief. With this in mind, I’ve asked our silage contractor to start cutting a bit earlier (that is, in terms of growth rather than weeks) than I normally would. The grass is reasonably short but it gives me a better chance of achieving a second cut because we will have the maximum number of drying windows (you’ve got to make hay while the sun shines!) and the maximum number of growing days. If the hot weather arrives early, my pastures will be less vulnerable, too.

I’m also acutely aware that with a “compressed” spring season at best, farmers all around the district will be quick to pounce on the next window of fine weather as soon as the grass really gets up and going, so our contractor’s time will be at a premium. Best to get in first!