Summer started this week

summer

The farm is cloaked in shades of green, the garden is a mess of dreamy flowers and the golden ash are just breaking into leaf.

I’m late planting trees this year, so they’re going where they’ll be watered by the irrigator. A good thing, too. The earth is firm underfoot and the plug of soil that my pogo-style tree planting tool pulls up is dry enough to crumble.

Yesterday’s weekly paddock walk showed dramatic changes in the pasture. Grass plants on the river flats each grew a new leaf in the last eight days but the slopes only put on half a leaf and the two north-facing slopes didn’t grow at all for the first time since autumn.

We missed out on promising rain from a storm yesterday and, with three hot days in a row on the forecast, I’m calling silage ’16 over.

While this season is so much better than last year’s, it has been tricky to make enough good silage and we’ve finished with less than half our normal total. Thankfully, we sensed it early and instead planted extra summer crops to reduce our reliance on conserved grass.

Aside from a couple of hiccups, the crops are looking good.

huntercroplores

“Hunter” forage brassicas almost ready to eat

And we’re more prepared than ever for the onset of dry weather. The new traveling irrigator we bought last year will use water from our dam together with recycled water and cow poo from the dairy runoff holding ponds.

There’s enough water and effluent to irrigate a small fraction of the farm, so we’re doing it strategically. We’ll keep high-value crops of turnips and millet growing through the first half of summer and leave enough water to get new pastures growing if there’s a false (or missing) autumn break.

dsc_32641

The new irrigator watering millet last summer

I’m always a little bit nervous when spring finishes. Have we made enough silage? Will we get through to next spring without buying hay?

With less silage than expected coupled with a milk price that won’t pay for hay, I’m jittery again but our cropping should make up for the silage shortfall and might even be better!

Whatever the outcome, our resilience to whacky seasons is growing and, along with it, my confidence as a farmer.

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.

On your marks for Spring on the farm

Spring starts tomorrow

Spring starts tomorrow


I’m excited. Fertiliser’s going on, calves are still being born and raised, almost all of the milkers are in and we are joining again with an eye to the next generation. The grass is growing a new leaf every seven days and, before we know it, the silage harvest will start.

This is the make or break time of year when everything has to be done right. Miss cutting a paddock of silage by a week and it could mean buying in expensive fodder later, miss a cow’s readiness to mate and it could cost you $250 in lost milk, miss a problem calving and it might cost a cow’s life.

All our skills are tested in Spring – from biology through to animal behaviour – so we need tools to help us.

We stick “scratchy tickets” on each cow’s back to make it easier to see when she’s ready to mate. Okay, she’s got no chance of winning the lottery but the silver coating of these stickers gets rubbed off when other cows leap onto her back in response to her hormonal cues, revealing hot pink, yellow or orange tell tales underneath.

The results of summertime soil tests and the advice of our agronomist allow us to maximise the performance of our pastures while minimising the impact on the environment.

Knowing when silage involves crawling around the paddocks keeping a close eye on grass growth, then entering the results into a clever little “Rotation Right” spreadsheet devised by our guru friends at DEPI.

But raising calves and watching over expectant cows? That’s a whole lot of tender care, time and generations of farming knowledge (yes, yes, combined with the latest advances in science).

This is when a farmer really knows she’s alive!

Dairy delight: silage supreme

The warm sweetness of fermented natural sugars swathed in the aroma of rich plum pudding make gourmet Silage Supreme irresistible.

Last weekend the conditions were perfect for the creation of a few thousand servings of this dairy delicacy.

Today, bunkered down in the office as water rattles down the drainpipes, I thought it was the ideal opportunity to relive the fleeting appearance of Spring by sharing the recipe with you.

So, next time you see cows eating “artificial, plastic food”, you’ll know the truth: it’s gorgeous, 100% pure luscious springtime grass lovingly preserved for a rainy day (or, perhaps, a scorcher).

Ah well, back to today…

WetHibiscus

WetOct

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!

Betting on a thunderstorm

Cows grazing with mower in distance

Have I made the right decision?

Imagine a game where you wager thousands of dollars on the timing of a spring thunderstorm. Too stupid? Well, that’s what I’ve just done.

Getting silage done this season has been…tricky. You need a three-day “window” of warm, dry weather to cut, dry, bale and wrap the grass. Three-day windows have been pitifully rare this season though and we have long, stemmy grass that needs harvesting.

This morning’s forecast said 25 degrees C today, followed by 30 tomorrow and a thunderstorm. We’ve decided to cut three paddocks. If the grass stays too moist, we might lose hundreds of rolls of feed. If we didn’t cut, the grass would go to head and stop growing.

Fingers crossed.

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.

 

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!