There’s a spring back in my step

PrairieGrass

How things have changed. The pastures are finally no longer moisture stressed and neither am I.

In a wintry week that’s likely to see snow carpet our sky line, I’m grateful for hope. The idea of another desolate season on top of 2015 and the corrosive dairy crisis had me all jittery in July.

August pretty much turned things around and the whipping rains in this, the first week of Spring, are welcome. The cows really don’t mind the cold – anything above 18 degrees Celsius is getting warm for them.

We still need a lot more rain. The dam has about a metre to go before it fills and the soils aren’t likely to make it in time for summer.

Soil moisture maps show that the root zone, which is classified as the top metre of the soil profile, remains much drier than usual.

This means that if there are lulls in the rain during the warmer Spring months, it won’t take long at all for the pastures to become stressed and slow their growth.

On the bright side, the Bureau’s three-month outlook has changed remarkably. There had been a low chance of average rainfall during Spring but, now, we have an even chance.

We’ve already locked in some standing silage and hay purchases but this more positive outlook means I won’t be on the hunt for more just yet. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that enough rain falls at the right time to get a good harvest of our own.

In the meantime, we’re keeping the paddocks well fertilised and grazing them to the perfect length to maximise their yields.

Unlike some dairy farmers, we graze according to leaf stage rather than the weight of grass in the paddocks. The kids and I count the leaves on a weekly “farm tour”.

Each plant can grow three leaves before dropping the first one. At the same time, each leaf is larger than the one before it. That means our aim is to let the cows into the paddock right when the grass plants have between 2.5 and three leaves each – the maximum amount of juicy new leaf matter and the minimum amount of waste.

Depending on the variety, this can look very different. Check out these two paddocks. Both were at two leaf stage and photographed this weekend, using my glamorous gumboot as a height indicator.

2leavesPRGlores

VS.

2leavesARG

Obviously, the second one looks the winner! But of course, it’s not quite that simple (it never is in farming!).

Number 2 is an an annual rye grass, which means it will need to be resown next autumn, whereas number 1 is a perennial rye grass, which should offer up to a decade of faithful service, in the absence of flood, fire and pestilence.

Each time we resow it costs money, adds an element of risk and disturbs the soil, potentially damaging its structure and the good bugs within it.

Also in the perennials’ favour is the flush of “All my Christmases have come at once” growth a sneaky summer thunderstorm can bring long after the annuals have given up the ghost.

So, you see, it’s all a bit of a balancing act. We use these flashy annuals as part of a renovation program. When a perennial is past its best and needs replacing, we spray it out in late Spring, plant a summer crop like millet or a brassica for the cows to graze when nothing else will grow, followed by an annual rye grass, another summer crop and then back to a perennial.

This program allows us to eliminate as many weeds as possible, get lime incorporated deep into the root zone and lift fertility, too.

huntercroplores

Delicious summer crop

Nothing’s assured in farming but the tide finally seems to be turning in our favour.

What climate change means at farm level

A photo by Heather Downing of the kids and me out on the farm for the Earth Hour cookbook, which appeared in The Age today

When journalist from The Age Liam Mannix asked me how climate change was affecting our farm, the answer was: in every possible way, beginning with the circle of life.

When I was a girl, we used to get the ute, the tractor and our gumboots bogged every winter. It rained and rained and rained and rained and…you get the picture. Well, not any more. With the odd exception, the winters are warmer and drier these days. Boggings are a rare novelty for my kids.

This has some real benefits. Warmer, drier winters are much easier on the cows, calves and the grass. Much easier on us, too (plugging through deep mud in horizontal rain is character-building stuff)! We can grow a lot more grass in winter and that’s fantastic.

Less than fantastic are the changing shoulders of the season – sprummer and autumn. Spring can come to an abrupt halt very early in November these days and we often wait much longer into autumn for rain.

Every rain-fed farmer like me tries to match the cow’s natural lactation curve with the grass’s growth. In fact, the amount of grass the cows harvest is the number one predictor of dairy farm profitability. So, looking at the new growth patterns, we took the plunge a few years ago and shifted the circle of life to match. Now, calves begin to arrive in early May rather than mid-July.

Our decision is backed by hard data. Dairy guru, Neil Lane, has researched local statistics and found that farms just 10 minutes away have seen falls in production of 1 tonne of dry matter per hectare and increasing risk around late spring and autumn. On our 200 hectare farm, that’s 200 tonnes every year valued at roughly $300 per tonne we lose. That’s a lot of ground to make up.

But all is not lost. Dairy farmers are adapting at break-neck speed. We are on the cusp of breeding cows that are more resilient to heat and, in the meantime, have a very well-practised regimen to protect our cows from heat stress.

We are growing different pasture species like cocksfoot, tall fescue and prairie grass with deep root systems to tap into subsoil moisture. Planting at least 1000 trees per year creates micro climates that shelter both our animals and our pastures.

All of this makes practical, business sense and it also helps me feel better about our children’s futures. We are doing something!

That’s why I agreed to talk to The Age for this article and why we were happy to be featured in the Earth Hour cookbook.
It’s thrilling to see the great stuff farmers across Australia are doing in response to climate change. Now, if we can communicate that to foodies and the animal welfare movement, just imagine the possibilities.

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

The Earth Hour cook book makes climate change matter to foodies

A slice of lime, anyone?

What is not rain, not sunshine, not bugs and not fertiliser but makes a Gippy milkmaid’s grass grow?

The great pyramid of Gippsland

The great pyramid of Gippsland

Lime! This is the first 30 tonne load of a 210 tonne order I placed the other day. High in calcium, lime helps to balance the natural acidity of our soils. Why does it matter? You can read all about it on a DEPI acid soil factsheet but here are the basics:

  • a low pH binds up the soil’s nutrients, making them less available to the plants
  • there’s a greater risk of manganese toxicity in acidic waterlogged soils
  • the nitrogen-fixing organisms in the soil suffer
  • plant roots become stunted in acidic conditions, making them more vulnerable to dry spells and root-eating pests
  • aluminium becomes more soluble and affects plant growth

Some of our paddocks are fine but others are desperately low, both in calcium and pH. Last year’s finances were just too tight to do much about it but, with a better milk price this year, I’m making up for lost ground.

It will take years to see any impact. In three applications over the last seven years, for example, we’ve spread a total of 7.5 tonnes/ha of lime on the paddock around the house because it’s one of the most acidic on the farm. Despite such a heavy dose of lime, we’ve only managed to lift the pH from 4.0 (that’s in CaCl2, not water, for the aficionados)  to 4.5, which still qualifies it as highly acidic.

Just goes to show that Giza wasn’t built in a day.

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.

The whingeing farmer

Farmers are infamous for never being happy with the weather. For years, we’ve been battling awful conditions – unreliable or non-existent autumn breaks, short springs and searing summers. The one blessing has been warmer and therefore more productive than normal winters.

This year, though, has been one out of the box. The landscape remained a verdant green right through summer and, with a precious bank of water in the soil, I took the opportunity to convert plenty of pastures from annual to perennials and when the “whole hog”, fully cultivating beautiful seed beds.

My gamble may still pay off but right now, the strategy has come back to bite me. The sun refuses to shine, the rain continues and that bank of soil moisture has been continually topped up to the point that very little of the new pasture is trafficable at a time when it desperately needs fertiliser and a trim. We may not be able to let the cows into some paddocks until spring.

So, as I type this post on a cold, wet, sunless day, I’m afraid I live up to the stereotype of the whinger. I have a good excuse but no good reason –  exposed to commodity price cycles, currency fluctuations, all the normal business hazards and mother nature herself, farming is innately a risky business but still we choose it as a way of life. After all, an affinity with mother nature is what binds us to it.