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.

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.

The calm before the perfect storm for one nervous dairy farmer

A perfect storm is brewing. Collapsing global dairy markets, a fodder shortage, and a strengthening El Nino.

Milk price uncertainty

Just across the ditch, NZ dairy farmers are drowning in despair after the dominant Kiwi milk processor, Fonterra, this week cut its farmgate price forecast to $3.85 per kilogram of milk solids, down from $5.25. The announcement followed hot on the heels of yet another set of disastrous Global Dairy Trade auction figures.

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

The Global Dairy Trade auction results of 4 August

 

Most NZ milk is sold via the Global Dairy Trade auction and an article from Stuff.co.nz neatly explains the situation for NZ dairy farmers:

DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle said the news was grim, but not unexpected and many farmers would now be in survival mode.

The drop in milk price would result in $2.5 billion dropping out of rural economies, Mackle said. 

“Milk price is now half what it was in 2013/14. We calculate around nine out of 10 farmers will need to take on extra debt to keep going through some major operating losses,” Mackle said. 

“For the average farmer you are looking at covering a business loss of $260,000 to 280,000 this season but for many it will be a lot more than that.”

It would have a big impact on rural servicing businesses. Drops like this had a cascading effect through rural economies, Mackle said.

DairyNZ analysis showed the average farmer now needed a milk price of $5.40 to break even.

Just a few months ago, dairy industry analysts were forecasting a return to better international commodity prices at the end of this year but opinions seem to be changing, suggesting that there will be not one but two years of pain ahead.

What does this mean for Australian dairy farmers like me? Well, the largest processor of Australian milk, Murray Goulburn, forecast a closing (or end of year) price to farmers of $6.05kg of milk solids just before its partial ASX float. It hasn’t yet revised that closing price but its biggest competitor, Fonterra Australia, says it will announce the results of its own July price review this week.

The big difference between NZ dairy and Australian dairy is this: NZ exports 95% of the milk it produces, while Australia exports just 38% of its milk.  The Australian domestic milk market is much more stable than international commodity prices, so we don’t get the dramatic highs and lows of Kiwi farmgate milk prices. At least, that’s how it’s meant to work.

I’m certainly relieved to have locked in a bottom to the price we are paid for 70% of the farm’s milk. We now supply Fonterra Australia, which accepted our bid to join “The Range” risk management program that sees our price bob about between an upper and lower pair of prices. If the milk price does collapse, we’ll go backwards at a rate of knots but will still be farming next year.

El Nino: more feed needed and less to go round

Sadly, I can’t lock in even a portion of our rainfall. With a strengthening El Nino predicted to persist into next year, the Bureau of Meteorology calculates just a 30 to 35 per cent chance of at least average rainfall for our region from August to October. That means we’re likely to have less surplus Spring grass to conserve as hay and silage. It’s a double whammy because the El Nino also suggests we’re likely to need more fodder than normal over summer and autumn.

To top it off, hay prices are already unaffordable and quality hay is scarce.

The perfect storm

In other words, we’ll need more conserved feed than normal with less than usual to make ourselves and, very likely, starved of cash flow to pay for extra loads from far flung places.

A milk maid’s survival plan

So, what do we do? We’ve already begun adapting by selling off our less productive cows to limit our demand for feed. Thankfully, cattle prices are high right now and the sale of those 13 cows will feed the rest of the herd for three weeks. I’m also spending more time hunched in front of the computer looking for any opportunities to cut costs and keeping an eagle eye on our budget.

A brainstorming and planning session with agronomist, Scott Travers, has helped us plan for extra on-farm cropping with brassicas over summer.

Cows grazing forage rape

The cows will be grazing more brassicas this summer

We’ll be planting several types of brassicas (which belong to the same family as broccoli and cabbage) that mature at different times in a bid to have leafy greens available for the cows throughout summer. The big risk, however, is that the weather will be too tough, even for summer crops.

To deal with this, we are planning another infrastructure project inside the bounds of our new kangaroo fence. Water from our freshwater dam will be mixed with effluent from the dairy yard and pumped over the crop paddocks. It will help the brassicas survive a dry sprummer and summer then help re-establish pasture during an unreliable autumn.

This modest irrigation system will cost money but it will slash the cost of spreading the effluent and should pay for itself quite quickly during a year when visits from the hay truck could spell the difference between make or break.

A perfect storm is brewing and, here on the farm, we are trimming our sails to suit.

 

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!

Lovers behind the shelter shed

Lovers

Lovers

I was out shifting fences yesterday when, through the trees along the gully, I heard the tell-tale staccato of furtive lovers nearby. And there they were, in a hidden pocket of the paddock, him licking her flank, she still undecided.

I crept closer to take a snap and uh, oh, I’d been spotted. Like guilty teens behind the shelter shed, the pair straightened up, stared belligerently (if a little gawkily) and wanted to know what I was looking at.

What else should I expect? It is springtime, after all. Isn’t a cow entitled to a little privacy?

First day of spring and the bulls are a-leaping

It’s officially the first day of Spring in Australia and it feels like it, too. This was the view from the garden this morning. I almost wanted grass on my rice cakes!

House paddock

Welcome to Spring!

The cows seem to feel it, too. They play “butter-heads” (as Zoe calls it) at almost every turn and are shedding their scruffy winter coats, revealing glossy new hair underneath. The male of the species, I must say, is also enjoying himself.

We run three bulls with the herd while resting another group of four at any one time because it’s hard work jumping on cows all day (yes, I know what you’re thinking). There was a change of shift for the bulls this morning and I thought I’d capture a little of the courting game for you.

The first bull opened with an impressive display, enrapturing the cows, well not quite…Oh dear – I have a video but YouTube is taking all afternoon – sorry. Let me put it this way, while Buster bull roared, sang and dug up dirt, the cows simply continued to eat. I told you the grass was good!

The next step is to have a good sniff of everyone.

Sniffing bull

Ooooh, you smell gooooohd!

The curled lip is called the “Flehmen Response” and shows the bull thinks she might just be “in the mood”.

Sadly, she wasn’t. He got it wrong and she quickly scurried off. Oh well, Bully Boy, better luck next time!

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!

Gotta be quick to respond as Spring springs

Spring has pounced…at last and with a flourish!

Each week, I monitor the growth rate of our grass and by golly it’s shot away in seven days. This means we can offer the cows a larger slice of each paddock per day, knowing that we won’t run out of grass or punish the pastures. We treat our little ryegrass plants with TLC, you see.

To explain why, I’ll need to tell you a little bit about the ryegrass plant (only a speed-date style of introduction because I know you’re probably not as excited about watching grass grow as I am).

In most cases, rye grass only ever grows three leaves per plant before the oldest leaf dies off. It’s at its best when it has 2.5 to 3 leaves, which is also when it grows fastest because it has the most “solar panels” to generate sugar and sustain itself.

The grass draws on sugar reserves stored in its stem to produce the first leaf, the second is self-sufficient and the third offers about 50% more herbage than the first two combined.

If you let the cows chew the grass down too hard or bring them back when it’s just used up its sugar reserve to get the first leaf out, you do enormous damage to the plant. It may not recover and will certainly take a long time to get up and running again.

Because Australian milk is sold at such low prices, we have to be super efficient and that means grazing the pasture at its most productive rather than relying on lots of expensive grain. A DPI expert once told me that what farmers do in the 12 weeks of Spring dictates how profitable we are for the whole year, so I am extra vigilant at the moment.

With the warmer, drier weather of the last week, we’ve seen growth rates soar. Rather than taking about 14 days to emerge, the first leaf is out in seven or eight. I’ve asked Wayne to reduce the amount of grain we’re feeding the cows (just by half a kilo every four days so we don’t upset the bacteria in their finely tuned digestive systems) and I’ll ring the silage contractor tomorrow to give him the heads-up.

That same DPI guy also told me that it doesn’t cost anything to be on time but being late in farming could cost a year’s profit. I’d better get out there!