The Drought We Are Not Having…

As I write this, 25ml or an inch in the old scale, of rain has fallen on our parched farm.

Its not nearly enough, bit we are grateful Mother Nature hasn’t forgotten how to do it!!

There has been a lot of talk in all forms of media about ‘Drought Preparedness’. Fantastic concept, and I’m sure a lot of farmers do it well.

We do generally. The 550+ bales of silage made after the floods last year should have got us through a hard winter and the normal hard spring that would follow a dry winter. With the shed filled with small bales of pasture hay for the dry stock and calves, we assumed we were ready.  Money…. that’s another story!

I’m very aware that all the dairy farmers in this area are doing it tough right now. And that every farmer has their own reasons why.

This is our story….

We moved from a farm on a flood plain closer to the coast.  We’d had three years of nine major floods to deal with, and another flood would have sent us broke.  The water would sit on the paddocks with nowhere to go and was exacerbated by the big tides that often accompany these events flowing up the drains.  Our poor cows needed flippers to get to the feed and a snorkel to eat it.  The water would sit for ages and kill the grass.  Even the hill paddock was wet, with the cows sinking to their hocks at times.  We replanted the pasture in most paddocks after almost every flood.  We lost cows because we couldn’t find a dry paddock to put them in.  We were new to the area and people were reluctant to help us out, even our landlords.

We moved to our current location just over two years ago.  The farm was run down and good milking pasture was, well, not there! Mother Nature sent a small flood through just to show us she wasn’t done yet.  But you expect that where we live and the new farm was far dryer, the water comes up quick and goes just as quick.

We then had about six months of well below average rainfall. There was enough sub soil moisture thankfully to keep the grass growing slowly and the creek running.

By the end of this dry spell, the fodder supplies we had brought over were just about done. We’d made a couple of hundred low quality ‘filler’  bales of hay (hay to keep the cows bellies full) and silage out of the mass of old blah that was on the ground as mulching would have left a mat of dead grass that wouldn’t have let the seed we sowed grow… But these were almost gone too by the time the two huge floods came through in two weeks about this time last year. The second was the biggest the area had seen for a long time.  It was touted as a once in 100 years flood.

We complained about the water and mud and all the cow problems that go with it. But it got the grass growing and we were able to replenish our fodder supplies.

That was the last good rain we saw.

I was talking to an older local farmer yesterday. He has records that date back to the ’30’s and he gave me a run down on the weather in the local area. He said his farm is in a 52 inch rainfall  area (I could be wrong but I think that’s about 1300mls).  Since March last year, he’s had 9 inches (225mls). We are in lower rainfall country than he. Ours is about 47 inches (1175mls).  But we’ve had about 5 inches in the same period.  My friend has a rain deficit of 1075mls, ours is 1050mls.

The point I’m struggling to get too is this…

How much money and fodder are you meant to have put away to cope with the extreme weather events that happen?

Its all well and good for a grain grower to say you need to forward buy and store for these times, or a beef and sheep producer to ask when are you going to start selling stock. This is dairy, a has completely different business model to any other agricultural business.

We can’t store our milk until the price improves. We are at the mercy of the companies we supply.  And that mercy has been absent for the last few years.

We have had a hard cull the last 12 months.  Our ‘excess’ is now our heifers.  The next generation of milk producers. The girls we have nurtured since the genetics were chosen to impregnate their mothers.  We sent some of them to Russia last year, a buyer is coming to have a look at the new weaners next week.  They won’t take the crossbreds, only the pure bred Holsteins.  The ones we have put all the planning into.

Our fixed costs – power, rent, pasture improvements etc – remain basically the same no mater how many cows we milk. The milk still needs cooling, the pasture topping and fertilizing. We still need to buy feed, and we still need money for basic necessities.  We cant just sell the excess as all our stock are breeding stock.  Our milk production is down by a third as it is.  That’s a conservative estimate too.  Reality might be too much to handle.

When you have a wet time, the cows need more dry feed – hay, silage – to keep them warm. So you use more. When its dry, they need it for survival.

And for people to compare agriculture in general to companies such as Toyota, Ford, Holden or even SPC is ludicrous.  Most of the farms in Australia are still the ‘Ma and Pa’ farmers much maligned by certain politicians, not multinational companies with profits in the billions.  We deserve the financial help the Liberal/Nationals’ wont give the big companies.

We are not yet “Drought Declared” or whatever they are calling it this time round. Most decisions on this seem to made from a desk in a Capital city.  The Bureau of Meteorology website says unequivocally we are not even in a real rainfall deficit.  The rainfall map for the last 12 months says we’ve had between 1200 and 18oo mls – average rainfall.  There is no official gauge in Wingham, so I can only go on anecdotal evidence.  Even with this rain, unless it rains for weeks and that’s not in forecast, we will be soon.

That should open a few doors for the farmers around here. We are all struggling.

The key is to plan!

We have sourced cheap organic fertilizer that won’t evaporate if it rains.  We are rationing out the little silage we managed to make at one bale a day. The cows are just holding condition on that.  The calves are getting as much pasture hay as they require to keep them looking their best for the buyer. Dry feed blocks are helping there. We are not going to source hay at the moment. We can’t afford it. We will work with what we have for the time being.

Hubby and I have decided our end date is the end of April at this stage.  We are struggling to pay the bills and there is only so much debt you can carry.  We will reassess before then of course. The Rural Financial Councillor is working with us to keep our heads above water and for him I will be forever grateful.  He’s not only helped us financially but in a mentoring role as well.

The mental health of farmers in the area is of huge concern right now.  And why wouldn’t be? The general consensus is this has been the hardest two years milking cows anybody has had.  As long as we keep talking to each other we should all survive.  Mateship is the key.

I hope this didn’t sound whiney.  It isn’t meant to. I just feel that agriculture is being hit from all sides and that even farmers from other enterprises don’t necessarily understand.

I hope we all get the rain we need and soon. It wont fix everything, but it will be a start.