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.

The silver lining to the big dry

FloodJune14Std

I thought we’d “only” had 93mm but it was actually more like 144mm (that’s more than 5 and half inches) in three days. Normally, that would have been a massive disaster. Instead, it’s moderate flooding and, so long as the weather gods hold their tempers for a while, we’ll have dodged a bullet.

Such a relief.

I put our narrow escape down to the lingering effects of the exceptionally dry summer and autumn of 2012/13. While the pastures were green last week, you only had to dig down a few inches before the soil became very dry. The catchment sopped up most of this rain like a giant jade sponge before it got to the waterways.

The weather bureau is forecasting a warmer and wetter than average winter and although it has very little confidence in that seasonal rainfall outlook, the forecasters are actually very good at predicting temperatures. A warm winter would be welcome indeed. Fingers crossed!

A purple blister on the weather map is coming to get us

Holy cow

Holy cow

It’s not a good sign when the local weather forecaster gets a spot on ABC Radio’s National news. Our forecast is so shocking that, yes, it made headlines today.

A massive chunk of Victoria is about to go underwater and, with it, a massive chunk of our farm. We’ve had an inch of rain in the last two hours and the prediction is for between 51 and 102mm tomorrow, followed by another 20 or 30mm over another couple of days.

I’m thankful for the undulations at the southern end of the farm. The cows will at least be safe.

I’m also thankful for the Bureau of Meteorology’s timely warnings. It gave us time to:

  • Set up safer paddocks for the cows
  • Ask Scott, the grain merchant, to deliver more feed before we get flooded in
  • Remove the power units from the electric fences on the river flats
  • Bring all the eight new calves born during the last 48 hours into the warmth of the poddy shed
  • Stock up at the supermarket
  • Pile the verandah high with dry kindling and wood to keep the kids warm

As the flood sets in, we’ll be:

  • Offering extra TLC for newborns and freshly-calved cows
  • Feeding out more of our precious and rapidly dwindling stock of hay while hitting the phones looking for more ridiculously scarce fodder
  • Keeping an even keener eye out for mastitis
  • Walking the cows extra gently to the dairy to reduce the risk of lameness
  • Hoping like hell that the damage to the fences and tracks isn’t too bad
  • Monitoring the condition of paddocks to minimise pugging (mud, mud, mud)
  • Stocking the dairy snack bar with a bottomless supply of soup and raisin bread

It’s often said that good farmers only worry about what they can control. I’ll do my best!

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!

Hail and hearty on the farm

Angry anvil clouds appeared above the ranges all through yesterday, sweeping rain up into the skies and pelting it down again with icy fury. In between were the most heavenly though frosty blue skies. As the day wore on, these glorious intermissions grew longer and we seized the opportunity to round up in the sun (albeit with at least three layers of clothing on).

With the cows yarded, we set off to open the gate to their new paddock. Just like the unfortunate Mr Gumpy, however, we were out in the middle of nowhere when the skies turned black.

As hailstones the size of garden peas stung our faces, Patch leapt from the back of the Bobcat onto my shoulders. Zoe buried her head in her coat shouting “It’s raining ice!” while Alex squirmed in his carrier under my layers of shirts and fleece. Our beanies were still in the tumble dryer after an earlier downpour and the hail was merciless.

But it was fun! Zoe began to laugh and so did I. Farm life is like that. It builds resilience and a sense of, dare I say it, dry humour.

To the victors flow the spoils

To the victors flow the spoils

Dad always said: “Happy is he who appreciates what he has” and I think it’s very good advice.

You’re better off playing two-up than believing the weatherman

Grazing in March

An amazingly good pasture for March

 

If you tossed a coin to issue the next three monthly outlook, you’d be more accurate than the weather gurus at the Bureau of Meteorology. I am not being cheeky either – it’s a fact reported by the Bureau itself.

The seasonal outlook below shows a relatively dry winter is expected in our part of Australia (a good thing).

National Rainfall Outlook

What we're supposed to be getting

But when you dig a little deeper, you find this matching map (not a good thing):

Seasonal Climate Outlook Assessment

The pink says "We get it wrong more often than we get it right"

We are in one of the pink zones. If I understand it correctly, this means the Bureau’s outlook is right 45-50% of the time. In other words, “If we say it’s going to be dry, it’s more likely to be wet”.

Don’t think I’m suggesting the weather forecasters are dummies. Absolutely not! Just as no dairy farmer would suggest she has a handle on all the natural systems that make a farm tick, weather is notoriously, ridiculously complex and difficult to predict. I take my hat off to those who get it kinda right most of the time.

What I don’t understand is that if the Bureau’s learned fellows are so honest as to say: “We think we have a 45% chance of getting this right”, why issue a forecast at all? Maybe they just love to use their colourful highlighters? 😉

Just because I told you the climate was getting drier…

It must have been because I wrote about dry summers and autumns in my previous post – the weather gods have once again turned on the rain. Paddock 17 is today better known as “Lake 17”. Compare this pic taken this morning with the one I shot just a few days ago.

It’s nice to have the moisture but this much rain certainly calls a halt to our pasture renovation for now. I’m also wondering how many more times the 800 trees we planted in paddock 17 last October can cope with going underwater.

What a difference a few days make!

The same view just a few days ago