Time to wisen up on water

When it comes to survival here on the farm, the three things with the potential to make or break are:

  1. Our health
  2. Mother Nature
  3. The milk price

I only truly understood the health thing and the worst possible price scenario last year but Mother Nature has been playing me like a marionette since the day I took the reins. Just take a look at this mess:

Pasture growth rate (tDM/day)

Pasture growth rate (kgDM/day)

If it looks too technical, don’t worry, it’s just a graph showing how fast the grass can grow by mapping its production over the last 14 years.

As you can see, from May to August the growth rate is consistently low, irrespective of what falls from the sky. I guess the days are just too short to grow a lot.

Come September, the grass begins to take off. After that, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen but that’s when – if there’s enough soil moisture – we harvest the grass we need to feed the cows over summer and winter.

Make or break hinges on reliable water during 12 critical weeks of the year from October to December.

So, while this is the time we need it to rain the most, it’s also the time where the whole thing can shut down. Like it did in 2015.

pfs2015

Right when we should have been turning waves of excess grass into silage, we began feeding the cows to make up for bare pasture. It was a financial and emotional disaster. I found myself suffering panic attacks as I stood in the browning paddocks.

The models show that, in an average year, we can grow 13,432 kilograms of feed per hectare, while in a good year like 2011, we can grow 19,068. In 2015, we could manage just 6,279kg/ha. That’s less than half the average or a mere third of a good year’s growth.

On a 200-hectare farm, that’s a loss of 1430 tonnes of feed valued at, let’s say, $280 per tonne to replace. It adds up to a $400,000 feed deficit. Enough to send me scurrying off to the bank for a new mortgage.

pfstdm

Desperation is the mother of innovation
Thanks to the unquenchable thirst of the resources sector and some rather curious water policies, we are locked out of tapping into the vast aquifer under the farm.

Nonetheless, we do have some water in a farm dam and the dairy effluent ponds. Last summer, we installed a small irrigation system to get that precious water onto the paddocks.

It’s enough to properly water a fraction of the farm during those 12 weeks, so we’re keen to maximise its value, watering only the most water efficient crops.

What we’re learning fast is that, unlike rye grass, which shuts down in the heat, millet luuuurves a heatwave, so long as it has enough moisture. Our experience has been supported by new Australian research, which shows that millet is almost three times more water efficient than rye grass.

There are other benefits, too. Unlike brassicas, which invite repeated attacks by every bug under the sun from mites to moths, millet is pretty much indestructible. And, unlike sorghum, which can be toxic if fed too early, it’s safe for everything from calves to milkers.

Contrary to the traditional wisdom that you can’t milk off millet, you can, so long as you graze it when it’s short. Just like any grass, it gets too fibrous when it’s long and loses quality. Because it can grow visibly in 24 hours under the right conditions, that means you need to graze it often. Not a bad problem to have in my book!

Expect to see more millet planted here to make the best use of every drop of water we can offer, especially as climate change makes the seasons less and less reliable. Now, if only we could get access to that aquifer…

GPS on the farm

A GPS comes in handy on the farm. We use it to plot farm infrastructure and maps, while contractors use them to fertilise and sow our pastures. Today, it did another very important job: science teacher for Zoe.

"We've got four, no, FIVE satellites!"

“We’ve got four, no FIVE satellites!”

With 250 cows drinking up to 200 litres of water each on a hot day, we need a pump we can rely on, so when the pressure began to fall, we were quick to investigate. Bugger. Faithful old Davey is getting pretty tired. An inch has been worn off his venturi and the jets need replacing. It’s a major overhaul, so we’ve decided to buy a second pump to keep Davey Senior company in semi-retirement.

To make sure Davey Junior is right for the job, it’s important to check how high he needs to suck water out of the river and then how high he needs to push it around the farm, which is where the GPS and its six-year-old pilot came in.

The GPS is magical to my little girl, and why not? It’s covered in buttons and talks to satellites whizzing through space at thousands of kilometres an hour. She was practically an astronaut today!

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.

At least there aren’t white caps in paddock 17 today

Flooded paddock 17

Flooded paddock 17

Paddock 17 and part of 18 are underwater today but at least there are no white caps. White caps? Yes, the ones sailors dread on an angry sea were whipped up in paddock 17 a week ago. The waters have barely subsided since then and all of the three forecast models I follow on OzForecast.com.au are predicting lots more rain in the next few days.

I’m a weather geek at the best of times but now I’m now compulsive about checking the forecast. Almost all our ready-to-graze pastures are on the river flats across the gully, which is infamous for flash flooding. A big downpour on the range to our south would see the cows marooned. There’s no bridge – only a concrete fjord – and I reckon building one would certainly usher in a drought!

Seriously though, I know many dairy farmers are facing much tougher times than we are with this amazingly wet season. Good luck to those still struggling with floods. Our thoughts are with you.