Changes flow from thirsty season
Gippsland dairy farmers Thelma, John and Mark Hutchison had such a large catchment dam on their property that they had never given a thought to running out of water. That was until the unthinkable happened.
The Hutchisons' large dam had always been so successful that it was the envy of the Nyora district.
"It was so large that a common saying in the district was 'if Hutchie's dam runs dry, then we're all in strife' -or words to that effect!" Thelma recalls.
But by 2006, the unthinkable had happened. A series of dry years with very little run-off had drained the dam to a puddle.
The Hutchisons sought advice from their milk company and attended many of the drought relief meetings being held in the area, but were continually disappointed.
"There was a lot of information about what do to if you ran out of feed, but nothing about what to do if you ran out of water," says Thelma.
"When we rang the milk company and asked about buying in water, they didn't know what to do because this had just never happened in Gippsland before.
"That was probably the scary part – that no one really understood just how gut-wrenching it had become."
The family took immediate action to reduce their water consumption and to source more water.
They sold 30 cows – almost a quarter of the herd – and put the remainder into a sacrifice situation using a paddock that contained a dam that was still holding water.
The cows also had access to water when they came in for milking.
"We put them in that paddock with hay and silage every day for two months and then strip-grazed them at night over the rest of the farm with access to troughs.
"We figured that at night it was cooler and they wouldn't need as much water."
Although they had their own hay and silage in reserve, they eventually had to buy in extra silage.
Like many dairy farmers that season, they also bought in palm kernel.
Their next step was to go to once a day milking to conserve water in the shed. Production dropped, but it did give them time to source extra water.
Relief came in the guise of a helpful neighbour who invited the Hutchisons to tap into his water supply.
But as they were joining a one-and-a-half inch pipe onto a two-inch system, there was the constant threat of pipes bursting or leaking.
"Mark spent most of his time going around the place checking the pipes: we knew we needed another solution," Thelma recalls.
The family looked at putting in a bore, but there was no guarantee that they would find water or if it would be potable.
Even if they had been confident of finding water, the application process was so time consuming and bureaucratic that they wouldn't have been able to sink a bore in time.
Overwhelming demand also meant that restrictions were placed upon the amount of water that could be taken from public bores.
They decided to clean out a smaller dam which had once had a windmill near it, hoping that it might have been spring-fed.
It wasn't – but it was near the road, which made it accessible to water tankers.
They bought in 25 tanker loads of water (in total, 475,000 litres) from the nearby glassworks at a cost of around $5000.
"They need to have enormous dams for the glassmaking process," says Thelma.
"Thankfully for us, the water was potable, and safe for stock."
The Hutchisons were also fortunate that the location of the dam provided safe access for the tanker.
They advise other farmers to keep this in mind when siting new dams or tanks that may be used to store off-farm water.
"There were a lot of health and safety issues for the tanker drivers," says Thelma.
"You don't think about these things until you're so desperate for water that you need to pay someone to come and deliver it for you."
They also took the opportunity to clean out the bigger dam while it was so low.
"A lot of our run-off comes from the road, so there was a big build up of silt at the bottom of the dam," explains Thelma. "It looked like we were digging a hole through to China!"
The exercise cost around $4000, but in the long run has been worth it – although the Hutchisons are not currently milking, the dam is almost full while others in the district are still at low capacity.
Running out of water was a costly experience for the Hutchisons.
However, taking immediate steps to reduce their water consumption, improve their catchments and identify alternative sources of water helped them continue operating through a very difficult period.
They are also grateful for the help of their neighbour, who allowed them access to his water for five months.
"We really wouldn't have been able to keep going without his support," says Thelma.