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.

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.

 

A month after the fires

The view from the house after the fire

The view from the house after the fire

One month and 30mm later

One month and 30mm later

Over there in the foothills, things are still tough. Stoic 84-year-old quarry-man, Jim, is still coming to terms with what he’s lost. Thankfully, his son and workers got out just in time but nearly a lifetime’s work went up in smoke that day.

Here on the other side of the valley, we’re just grateful to have been spared.

A couple of dumps of rain have brought summer (and the threat of fire) to an end and while the grass is yet to get moving, it is greening. Groups of cows are being sent on maternity leave, seed is being drilled into tired pastures and we’re cleaning out the calf shed again.

In five years, our little valley has seen fire twice, devastating floods, drought and plagues of grubs. It’s all a bit biblical.

“May you live in exciting times.”
– ancient Chinese curse

At least one dairy farmer won’t mind the summer heat

Bogged on the first day of summer

Bogged on the first day of summer

Wayne has a reputation for getting stuck and he’s outdone himself this year by bogging a quad bike on the first day of summer. Worse, he left his helmet at the scene of the crime and by the time the kids and I came to the rescue, his gear had been given a beating by the local hoons.

Cows may be vegetarians but don’t for a minute think that this in itself bestows innocence. They are merciless with unattended vehicles. This time the helmet, fuel breather line and rubber boot for the brake assembly were squelched deep into the quagmire but I’ve seen much worse.

In fact, a local fencing guy swears one (or maybe a gang) of our “ladies” opened his ute door and took off with his cheese and Vegemite sandwiches, leaving only a trail of slobber on the gearstick and driver’s seat.

Moral of the story: never leave valuables in sight or your vehicle unlocked.

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.

As the grass grows golden everything changes again

Feed bails

The new feed ration ready for tonight's diners


I shouldn’t admit this but I use the lawn as a bit of a guide to pasture growth rates. Our lawn is far from manicured and includes just about every grass species known to man. Of course, it’s not grazed either, so it’s really easy to see how it is performing. And, this week, we raised the mower’s cutter deck in an attempt to preserve its greenness.

That’s not to say I don’t watch the paddocks like a hawk. Out on the farm, we’ve been battling to prevent the grass from bolting to head, raising seed heads atop stalky stems that fill the cows with fibre rather than goodness. The seed heads also signal senescence – a type of hibernation for grass – dramatically reducing growth rates.

It means that rather than being able to graze a paddock, say, every 21 days, we must rest it for up to 60 days when summer really kicks in. To manage this, we strip graze the paddocks so the cows get a much smaller yet still fresh portion each day. With less grass on offer, we must make up the daily ration with supplementary feed. I have some gorgeous vetch hay waiting in the shed and there’s all that silage we baled just a few weeks ago.

My first step though is to lift the amount of grain we’re feeding to balance out the increasing fibre in the grass. Just a 1kg boost – easy enough to turn up the dial but, oh, what a performance it turned out to be!

The feed system is governed by a timer rather than a checkweigher, so we have to guess how much extra time to dial up, scoop samples into buckets, weigh and review if necessary but the scale’s batteries were flat. Determined to get it right though, I dumped a 1 litre juice bottle on top of a bucket of the current ration and, with Clarkie’s help, set up a rudimentary scale with a scrap metal rod suspended from a roof truss with hay band. It wasn’t glamorous but it worked a treat!

All I want for Christmas now is a yard hydrant wash system, an underpass and a pasture meter like Graeme’s.

A typical summer’s day on our dairy farm

Summer is the laziest time of year on our farm and yesterday was a pretty typical day.

5am Wayne rounds up, Marian changes another nappy.

5.30 Milking starts.

8.30 Milking’s finished, clean-up begins.

9am Marian, Alex and Zoe head to see Papa.

9.10 Zoe, Alex and Marian plant trees in the margins of the wetlands while Papa hoses the yard

Seedling leaves

Indigenous eucalypts

10.30 Papa’s finished hosing the yard and goes to feed the calves.

10.45 Emergency! Papa phones to say there’s a break in the fence and M, Z and A go to the rescue.

Fencing repair

"What a lovely morning for repairing fences, don't you think, Mama?" - Zoe

11.15 We all get back to the shed for a cool drink and catch-up. Tanker’s come and gone – same litres as the last pick-up, which is good news in summer!

11.20 Papa makes repairs to the dairy. Mama, Zoe and Alex head off to check the paddocks.

11.55 Alex is huuunnnggrrrry and wants to get out of the carrier NOW. Head to the house for lunch.

12.30 New neighbour, Garth, drops by to introduce himself and a young fellow looking for weekend work.

1.15 Back out to look at the paddocks and work out the week’s pasture rotation. Papa starts shifting silage.

Bringing in the silage

Papa busy bringing in the silage

2.30 While setting up paddocks, stop to fix an overflowing trough

Trough algae

Oooooh, slimy algae!

2.45 Splat in the mud – must change pants and boots!

3pm Time to round up!

Rounding up

Ho up there!

3.35 Milking again.

3.40 Plant a couple more trees and then time out for Zoe and Alex.
 

Little monsters in a crop

Cabbage moth

This picture of bridal purity is actually laying the seeds of destruction

This beautiful butterfly is no fairy. The larvae of the white cabbage moth and her wicked step-sister, the diamond backed moth,  can decimate brassica crops in days. The only way to control the diamond-backed wrigglers is to spray and spray and spray. Every five to seven days for the life of the crop! I’m no buddhist but this is a level of chemical use that scares me (and blows any hope of profitability at the same time).

For this reason, I’m falling out of love with rape. This obscenely-named brassica has long been the darling of dry-land dairy farmers. We’ve come to rely on it for high-quality lush green feed in the height of summer; when little else worthy of our cows’ refined (read “udderly spoilt”) palates will grow without irrigation.

I used to stagger plantings over a dozen hectares of brassicas to provide a constant feed source from January through to early March. Not any more. I’ve planted the oat paddock with Hunter rape and that’s it. Unlike the more hardy Winfred variety, Hunter is safe to graze at any age and when the larvae get a wriggle on, I’ll simply send in the cows and let the caterpillars have the rest. No spraying, no searching under leaves for stealthy marauders and no cow health worries.