Planning for disaster while dodging a bullet

Daffodil
Today’s blossoming of the very first daffodil reminded me we’re on the cusp of Spring – our 12 weeks of make or break on the farm.

Only yesterday, a banker asked me how the outlook was on farm. Anxious is the answer.

The feed pinch
The big dry has sent grain futures soaring, signalling that we’re in for exorbitant grain prices by Christmas.

Meanwhile, it’s been very hard to grow grass and the dry subsoils provide little moisture in reserve for what the Bureau is predicting will be a drier-than-normal Spring.

While we’ve invested heavily in a small amount of irrigation infrastructure, the dam is still well below full and we have no access to the aquifer.

At the same time, high quality hay suitable for the milkers is in very short supply, so I’ve been trying to lock in feed this harvest before it becomes too tight to mention.

The money pinch
Most dairy products are either traded internationally in US dollars or sold to domestic customers at a rate linked to international commodity prices.

This means that as the Australian dollar rises against the US dollar, the value of our milk falls. And rise it has, reaching 80 cents for the first time in two years.

Green shoots bring hope
On the other side of the ledger, there’s been cause for hope this morning.

Despite the exchange rate fears, the processor we supply, Fonterra, lifted its price for milk from $5.30kgMS to $5.50kgMS (from roughly 40.5 cents per litre to about 42 cents).

Second, I found a heap of worms slithering across the track in a bid to avoid the saturated soil. Yes, saturated! For the first time this winter, we finally have soft top soils.

Better late than never. Let’s hope the rain keeps coming and we don’t need to feed the cows massive amounts of grain to get through another drought.

Worm

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.

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.

The hay is down and I’m hoping for a wet Christmas

Hay in windrows

No rain dancing until Christmas Eve, please

Christmas in this part of the world is always a surprise – you never know whether it will be stinking hot or if you’ll be running inside to the warmth of the pudding. This year, I hope it pours!

We have a huge slab of the farm’s pasture cut for hay and it’s going to be baled in the next couple of days. If we get some nice follow-up rains, our farm will be celebrating the New Year with spring-like pastures. If it disintegrates into a series of scorchers, we will have short, dessicated pastures.

No matter what happens, I have made the right decision to cut the stalk off and return quality to the pastures. Too much stalk for dairy cows is like too many rice cakes for an athlete: there just isn’t enough goodness in the diet. On the other hand, any farmer will tell you it’s foolish to be smug on the promise of a weather forecaster with your hay still in windrows.

Perfect timing, kinda: the brief lifecycle of a forage oat crop

The oats were sown in Autumn and here they were in May:

Oats on May 14

Oats on May 14

The idea was to provide quick winter feed and open up the soil with their deep roots but it got so wet, we couldn’t graze them and some were stunted.

Oats stunted by wet conditions

Oats stunted by wet conditions

Most of the paddock looked perfect in August but the soil was still too wet for the cows.

Oats in August

Oats looked great in August but still too wet to graze

This spelled trouble. It meant we’d missed the chance to graze the oats at all. The growing points would be too high. If I ignored that and grazed them anyhow, there would be nothing to bale to feed out next calving season. Oats are great to feed to heavily pregnant cows because they lower the risk of milk fever.

This is how they looked two weeks ago:

Zoe in the now tall oats

Zoe in the then tall oats

It meant they had to be cut quite quickly and this week was our chance. They were mown on Monday and Tuesday:

Mown forage oats

The oats after mowing

By Thursday (yesterday), they were still a little sappy but, while it was 30 degrees Celsius, a cool change was on its way, so we had to wrap it as silage rather than leaving it to dry further to become hay.

Baled oaten silage

Oats all baled up

It was such a nice feeling to listen to the rain on the roof last night, knowing I had hundreds of sweet silage bales all wrapped up for the girls next autumn!

I’ve discovered a treasure-trove of info on silage making online, by the way. Check out the Dairy Australia “Successful Silage” manifesto. If you’re not thrilled by silage, you could use it to rock yourself off to sleep.