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.

Making the wet worthwhile

Not quite monsoon weather

Not quite monsoon weather

I’m writing this post hoping to be embarrassed by calling this a flop of a monsoon trough. Earlier in the week, we were promised 5 inches of rain by now but we’ve clocked up about a tenth of that in five days of drizzle with perhaps an inch or so supposedly delayed in traffic still to come.  Not that I would ever look a gift horse in the mouth, of course!

The gift of a good soaking in summer is precious indeed. We don’t irrigate here so rely totally on what falls from the heavens and our farm is set up to make every drop count. The silver lining of greater climate volatility is more summer downpours. We have sown deep-rooted perennial pastures, including the heat-loving tall fescue and cocksfoot, throughout the farm. These pastures respond almost instantly to rain in summer and increase our resilience to an increasingly tricky climate.

Bring it on!

A milk maid’s Mother’s Day

Zoe is sound asleep still gripping a book propped upright on her chest with the rollicking Fantastic Mr Fox in full swing on her CD player. Alex is prostrate with both arms up around his ears.

Today was tough for my little people. Alex got himself soaked and in trouble with Mama for tossing stones into a trough while Zoe learnt the hard way not to swing on a gal gate beside a hot wire.

We were desperate to get a whole list of farm jobs done before the rain came and it was action stations all day. Now, as the first shower of a forecast two or three inch deluge tip-toes across the farm house’s iron roof, it seems all very satisfactory.

Zoe, Alex and I fed two batches of cows, treated a sick calf, repaired two fences and a gate (what is it with the bulls?), brought in a load of wood, planted a tree, sorted 24 cows from a mob of 60, shifted the teenagers and got out two new mums with their calves.

A real team effort

A real team effort

And, in amongst all that, I was treated to the most marvellous Mother’s Day. Wayne cooked a Moroccan chicken lunch and I was presented with all sorts of very meaningful mementos. I am very, very lucky indeed.

AutumnGardenAlexCowsLoRes

A very special present from a dairy farmer’s son

Our new pastures were sown in the rain into lovely moist soil the first day after Easter. Nothing’s come up yet and although the farm is pretty green, it’s stopped raining! I can’t help checking in on the forecast every day hoping that a deluge is on its way.

Even one-year-old Alex seems to know how exciting a trip to a full rain gauge is during Autumn and, this afternoon, he arranged a special present for me.

"Mama! Mls!"

“Mama, Mama! Mils!”

Alex ran up with the “rain” he’d prepared, shouting “Mama, Mama, mills!”.

“How much?”

“Four!”

“Great work, Alex, keep it up!”

Our farm is rain-fed rather than irrigated and I must admit that I often look enviously across the valley towards neighbouring farms soaking in water during summer and critical times like these.

Typically, Aussie dairy farmers also daydream of the seemingly perfect New Zealand climate. While Australia’s dairy exports stagnated during our 12-year drought, Kiwi exports soared. This year is different. The Kiwis have had a drought of their own and without a grain industry to help them maintain their cows’ diets, milk production has plummeted.

It’s a cruel irony that the misery of our Kiwi counterparts has already begun to see the international milk prices rise and with it, our hopes for the next season.

And the rollercoaster goes up!

This was the farm 48 hours ago. Shrouded in smoke from the bushfires, the place was tinder dry.

January 25

January 25

I went to bed last night with 4 inches of water in the house tank and hoped like hell that the easterly over Bairnsdale would grace us with its presence. We had gone all out, after all. The cairn dedicated to Thor is almost complete, the washing line was full of dry clothes and, to top it off, Wayne left the quad bike in the centre of the lawn with his helmet upturned like a giant goblet, ready to receive the sacrament.

Thor delivered.

Almost 18mm of gentle rain!

Almost 18mm of gentle rain!

There is not a puddle to be seen but the place smells wonderful and the plants are already responding.

What a difference 12 hours makes

What a difference 12 hours makes

We had to celebrate!

The Thor Cairn was the perfect place to celebrate and pay homage

The Thor Cairn was the perfect place to celebrate and pay homage

What makes this rain even more special is that there is more rain forecast over the next week and not a day over 30 degrees. The cows will love it! Can’t wait to snap another panorama at the end of the week to see new life breathed into the farm.

Farm fit

 

Before Bed Bike Safari

Before Bed Bike Safari

At my local primary school, I was an okay runner but at the big regional secondary school an hour’s drive away, I was a star. The townies were no match for a fit farm girl.

Farm kids get a natural workout every day as my little girl’s muscular legs will attest. On Boxing Day, she urged me along 10kms of forest tracks on her new pushie, complete with a “passenger” to match mine. Tonight, she was desperate to go on a ride before bed, so I said “just around the boundary then”.

The boundary ride was a nice little adventure and a good chance to check the fences and more far-flung paddocks. We are besieged by kangaroos and wallabies who are very charming but give fencing and pastures close to the forest a beating.

The kangaroos are welcome to some of the west-facing paddocks, which are already quite desiccated. The others won’t be far away. In fact, I can say with some confidence, Friday will cast a new hue over the farm. The first summer stinker of 2013 is forecast to be 40 degrees in the shade and the Bureau says not to expect any rain for at least the next eight days.

Time to figure out a new rain dance, I guess.

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.

Rain post

Bah humbug! I am going to hang washing out on the line this morning, despite the Bureau’s flash flooding warnings because my diligent preparations for yesterday’s forecasted deluge seems to have put a hex on the arrival of the huge east coast low.

For a week now, the forecasters have been issuing dire alerts, urging us to get hay into sheds and move cattle to high ground. I duly grazed out the flats and arranged for the cows to go to the slopes, cranked the dam siphon into action for a day (flooding the swamp paddock in the process), brought in all the loose garden furniture and watched the radar.

A huge storm raged all day in Bass Strait but nothing arrived here. Even the easterly wind faded away to nothing and small puffy clouds arrived from the south-west. Disgusted, I finally drove up the dam wall to turn off the siphon. When I turned to see how much of a mess I’d made of the paddock in the siphon’s path, this is what I saw:

It had snuck up on me

It had snuck up on me

Wheeling around towards the south-east, I was astonished to see it even had its own “twister”!

Twister

The finger of doom?

Well, I reckon we’d be lucky to see 3mm in the gauge this morning.

The thinking behind this post is that the more public I go with my disbelief, the more likely the weather gods will shame me. So, please tell everyone you know that Milk Maid Marian says it’s not going to rain today. I dare you!

How much did you get?

“How much did you get?” will be the standard greeting in town for the next week or so.

What a downpour

Bikini weather

If not for Alex, I would have stripped off and run outside when the thunderstorm hit this afternoon. Until today, we’d been well settled into a very dry weather pattern typical of a traditional scorching summer. The grass was going backwards fast and the amount of milk we’ve been sending has been shrinking every week. My trusty forecasting website, Oz Forecast, had seen it coming for almost a week though and I was ready.

Feeling bold but a little nervous, I’d laid thousands of dollars on the line by having urea (a fertiliser that is 46% nitrogen) spread across a swathe of paddocks last Friday. Nitrogen is amazing stuff, more like water than fertiliser really: its effect lasts only a few weeks so you need continual top-ups but under the right conditions, it makes grass grow like nothing else.

It’s not cheap though and the wrong conditions can see it quite literally evaporate, or “volatilise”. A fact sheet by esteemed University of Melbourne scientist, Richard Eckard sums it up this way:

What is Volatilisation?
This occurs when urea fertiliser is converted to ammonia gas, a process which takes place in the first 48 hours after application. Conditions during that first 48 hours are critical to the amount of nitrogen lost.
How much is lost?
Trials conducted recently at Ellinbank showed losses to volatilisation are highest in February and are commonly around 14% on the nitrogen applied as urea. However, loss between May and November are substantially less, being between 3 and 6% of the nitrogen applied as urea. Other sources of nitrogen do not volatilise under our conditions, although on DAP would justify the price difference if only 14% is lost from urea.
How to minimise volatilisation losses?
1) Low wind speed: In one experiment a 14% loss was reduced to around 4% the next week where there was almost no wind. One strategy, adopted by some farmers, is to apply nitrogen a few days before grazing. This reduces wind speed at ground level almost zero due to the longer grass and any surplus ammonia gas produced is absorbed direct into the leaves of the pasture.
2) Lime application: In a similar experiment a loss of 12.5 % of nitrogen from urea was increased to 22.5 % by applying urea where 2.5 t/ha of lime had recently been applied. A simple solution where both urea and lime are required would be to apply the urea first, then apply the lime a week later.
3) Rainfall: In another experiment at Ellinbank rainfall was simulated in February by irrigating after applying urea. Urea volatilisation losses were only 4 % where 23 mm ‘rain’ was applied within 24 hours of the application of urea. Likewise with 9mm ‘rain’ losses were 7 % and with 3mm ‘rain’ losses were 14 %. However, applying urea the day after 23mm ‘rain’ resulted in a 21% loss!

Those nerves when I ordered the urea were justified. I would have lost a lot of nitrogen in those first 48 hours but I’d paid an extra $15 per tonne of “insurance” in the form of Green Urea. According to its manufacturer, Green Urea is “treated with the urease inhibitor, N-(n-butyl) thiophosphoric triamide (NBPT), to delay hydrolysis of urea into nitrogen forms that may be lost to the atmosphere”. In other words, we had seven days to get the weather right rather than 48 hours.

If the forecasters continue to excel and deliver the promised mild conditions over the next week, the grass will rocket away, pleasing the cows, the farmer and her banker no end!