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

For our children

Have you seen this?

Yes, it’s by Unilever. Yes, you’re entitled to be cynical and yes, I love it.

The global manufacturer and ice-cream maker has just accredited Australian dairy production as meeting its Sustainable Agriculture Code – a huge accomplishment, which is also a world first. Of course it doesn’t mean Australian dairying is perfect and Dairy Australia has published a Sustainability Framework that will nudge us all to do better.

Here on the farm, our family does a bite-sized project for the environment every year. We have:

When I say “our family”, I have to stress that we haven’t been able to do all this without help. Grants from Landcare, Greening Australia and the Wellington Shire, work by the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority, together with the hard yakka of volunteers from the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group and some of our friends have made the tree planting possible.

It just goes to show what we can do when everyone pulls together.

Goanna

The dairy farmer’s calendar

Summer is the laziest time of year for a dairy farmer but when Wayne and I started writing a “to do” list yesterday, my head began to spin a little. Not satisfied with a mild head rush, I went on to draft a rough calendar:

The Annual Milk Maid’s To-Do List

Lazy Summer Days

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (pump breakdowns are popular this season)
  • Begin drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Make hay
  • Have we conserved enough fodder? Consider buying more
  • Begin feeding silage, crops and hay
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Control blackberries
  • Vaccinations, drenching, branding, preg testing
  • Big maintenance projects (the stuff you put off the rest of the year)
  • Dream of the next Great Leap Forward

Autumn Anxieties

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (milk quality issues popular this season)
  • Continue drying cows off for their annual holiday
  • Special feeding regime for expectant cows
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Test soils for nutrient levels
  • Repair cow tracks
  • Sow new pastures
  • Fertilise pastures
  • Return cow effluent back to pastures
  • Chase revegetation grants and order trees
  • Maintenance
  • Still feeding silage and hay
  • Nude rain dancing in full swing

Winter Woes

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (calving emergencies popular this season)
  • Welcome and nurture new calves
  • Fence and spray areas for revegetation
  • Spend a day changing rubberware in the dairy
  • Feed three groups of cows different rations
  • Mating program in full swing
  • Consider another drenching
  • Buy new gumboots and practise rain dancing in reverse
  • Redo budgets after milk factory announces opening price
  • Keep chin up

Supercharged Spring

  • Milk cows
  • Pay bills
  • Deal with crises (unpredictable weather popular this season)
  • Train the new members of the herd
  • Visit the accountant (and maybe the banker)
  • Fertilise, fertilise, fertilise
  • Vaccinate and wean calves
  • Thoroughly clean and disinfect the calf shed
  • Plant trees
  • Control thistles
  • Make silage
  • Sow summer crops
  • Make grass angels

I know I’ve missed stuff – lots of it – but it should give you an idea of what happens day-to-day and season-to-season on our very average Australian dairy farm. So, dear Reader, as we head into 2013, what do you want to know more about?

Finding pleasure in the small stuff

Gully reflections

Smile at the small stuff

The silver lining to the devastation of the flood is that I’m enjoying some of the farm’s special secret spots. The relentless hunt for shorts in the fence bring me to lovely quiet places like this where time seems to stand still and there is no mobile reception.

I’ve been impressed to see how well the trees planted last summer with the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group fellows have not only coped but thrived in the wet conditions.

9 month old trees

Only nine months after planting, these trees are firing on all cylinders

Even trees that I gave up for dead are emerging. The wetland was planted out with 800 blackwoods, melaleucas and swamp gums two years ago. The hardy melaleucas are staging a comeback after months of at least partial submersion!

New trees in the wetland

Swamp paperbarks emerge from the morass

The favoured maxim might be “don’t sweat the small stuff” but I must admit to savouring the small stuff, especially when it’s such an important part of the big picture.

Caring for Our Country requires a team effort

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a country to take care of its land.

Our family has set a target of planting at least 1000 trees on our dairy farm every year but we’ve only been able to do it with a lot of help.

  • Greening Australia helped me develop a whole farm plan and funded the refencing of 11ha of remnant vegetation plus 800 trees that our friends helped us to plant.
  • Our local Landcare group provided a good chunk of the funding for fencing off and revegetating a wetland that volunteers from the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group came down from the city and planted with us.
  • The West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority funded kilometres of fencing and thousands of trees along the gully and anabranch, plus connecting wildlife corridors.
  • Again, the volunteers from the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group came and planted 1200 trees for us last year.
  • The Wellington Shire Council funded the planting of trees along the roadside bounding our farm a year ago and has funded more work in the wetland this year.

We are so, so grateful for all this help. Revegetation is an expensive affair that involves a lot of planning and hard yakka. It’s so worthwhile! This is one of the trees planted by Bruce, Chris and David of the VMLG last October.

Six month old tree

The trees will provide wildlife habitats, help to keep the water table healthy, protect our rivers and the ocean and make a small contribution to reducing carbon pollution. They will also make our cows more comfortable in unpleasant weather and enhance the beauty of our landscapes.

With all this in mind, it was a relief to hear that the doomsayers’ predictions of funding cuts to the chief national environmental program, Caring for Our Country, that helps to fund all this work failed to materialise in the federal budget. There are unwelcome cuts (on top of previous cuts) but it is still here.

Our green investment already begins to grow

Bruce and Zoe planting in late October

Bruce and Zoe planting in late October

Young tree powers away

The next generation is looking good!

Just eight weeks ago, Bruce, Chris and David of the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group helped us plant 1200 trees. Yesterday, Zoe and I were staggered and delighted to see how much they’d grown.

Planting trees is always a bit of a gamble and the wet year had delayed their planting, which added to the risk they’d perish. Of course, it’s only the start of summer and they’re not out of the woods yet (dreadful pun, sorry) but what a great start they’ve had.

Thanks again, Bruce, Chris and David!

PS: I had to edit this – I meant 1200 trees, not 800! We were given 400 more at the last minute!

People who drive conservation by walking the talk

Three men drove up to five hours (each way) to get to our farm and then worked tirelessly all day for nothing except the sense of satisfaction that comes with doing something good.

David, Chris and Bruce are members of the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group, which is unique because rather than being a collective of environmentally-aware landholders keen to make their properties more sustainable, this is a group of environmentally-aware volunteers who plant tens of thousands of trees all over the state.

As they explain on the group website, VMLG members are “people passionate about land care through responsible 4WD use, we are a non-profit association tightly affiliated with Landcare Australia and 4WD Victoria”.

Last year, the VMLG helped us plant 800 trees and we were wrapt that they could come again this year to add 1200 more. Here they are at the start of the day, ready to get stuck into planting.

Victorian Mobile Landcare Group volunteers

Victorian Mobile Landcare Group volunteers: Bruce, Chris and David (L-R)

Bruce, Chris and David soldiered on in the rain (“just one more tray,” eh Chris?), stopping only for an hour-long BBQ lunch. I was proud to have Zoe working alongside these fellows who do so much more than talk about their commitment to the environment.

Bruce shows Zoe how to plant trees

Bruce shows Zoe how to plant trees

At the end of the day, we had created two wildlife corridors and shelter for the cows – a great outcome for the environment, our animals and the landscape. One tree was set aside for Zoe and ceremonially planted in the garden to remind us of the day.

Members of the VMLG and Zoe with a ceremonial tree

Members of the VMLG (David, Bruce and Chris) and Zoe with a ceremonial tree

Thanks guys. We couldn’t have got this done without your help. Thanks also to the West Gippsland Catchment Authority for spraying and 800 metres of fencing and to the Yarram Yarram Landcare Network for the donation of 400 trees.

Why bother being green?

Land for Wildlife dam

Our Land for Wildlife dam

Our farm dam is a real jewel. Flanked by trees planted almost 30 years ago, it’s a beautiful 8 acre stretch of water that hosts an enormous range of bird species. The farm is only about 10km from the coast and the internationally significant Corner Inlet Ramsar site, so our dam hosts both inland and sea bird life – it’s not unusual to see cygnets gliding across the ripples behind their parents while pelicans roost above them. Dad had the foresight to register the dam under the Land for Wildlife program back in the ’80s to help protect the birds.

The dam sits at the heart of the farm, which is bounded by native state forest to the south and the Albert River to its north. The farm also incorporates 27 acres of remnant forest, a wetland and revegetated gully. We’re planting more trees every year.

Why? First of all, because of the much denigrated “warm and fuzzy feeling” that giving something back to nature brings. It’s not all about economics when it comes to the place you love! Second, because I firmly believe trees add to the sustainability not just of the planet but of our small patch, creating micro-climates that will protect people, animals and pastures as we endure increasingly more variable weather patterns.

Unfortunately, it’s really expensive to plant trees – allow $7 per metre for fencing, then spray for weeds, $1.10 per tree in a tube, plus the hard yakka involved with getting them in the ground – and you’re up for thousands of dollars in the blink of an eye. That’s nothing to complain about but it does limit the amount we can plant each year.

Fortunately, we can sometimes get grants for extra plantings and some volunteer groups make the plantings physically possible. These people, like the Victorian Mobile Landcare Group should be nominated for sainthood. Last October they came to help us plant 800 trees and are volunteering to help us again this year. Not everybody walks the talk like they do!

Does grass grow on trees?

A few of the trees planted last spring

Trees Dad planted along a gully 12 years ago

Money may not grow on trees but I’m beginning to see that grass just might.

Our most productive pastures in summer are those that are sheltered on three sides by thick stands of willows. These are clapped out old ryegrass species but they outperform much newer pastures. I think that mostly it comes down to the relief the trees provide from those roasting NW winds. The cows also love the deep shade under the willows’ spreading branches, which must minimise heat stress. In other words, they create a more temperate micro-climate.

But willows are not universally loved, especially if you’re a native fish. Our farm draws water for cows and to clean the dairy machinery from the Albert River, so it is in our interests to protect the river’s health. I’m trying to see those shady willow windbreaks as “infestations” but without enough alternative shade, tearing them out is not a consideration.

So what are we doing? Planting hundreds and hundreds of native trees each year. If I had enough funding, I’d plant thousands every year! By doing this, we’re also creating wildlife corridors linking our gorgeous Land For Wildlife dam (which stretches over 8 acres) with two waterways and a wetland.

I’m so impatient. I can visualise the beauty of the farm in 20 years’ time, the cool oases of shade and the relief from the howling SW winter weather that these trees will bring. If the scientists are right, those refuges are going to be even more valuable as our climate becomes increasingly variable. If I’m lucky, I’ll be able to celebrate my 60th birthday in the summer of 2030 and Zoe’s 18th in the winter of 2024 in a very different and much more sheltered landscape to the one we enjoy now.