Managing the season ahead
Please note: This is the Summer 2018–2019 edition. For the winter edition, see Managing the season ahead – Winter 2019.
Dairy Services, Agriculture Victoria, Leongatha
The three-month climate outlook (December to February) suggests that summer could be warmer than average, but there is no strong indication of it being wetter or drier than average. This is despite there being strong signals that an El Nino has developed in the Pacific Ocean.
There are some positive and negative factors that dairy farmers will likely be considering this summer. Factors favouring good summer production include; good soil moisture in South West Victoria and South and West Gippsland, and no strong indication of it being drier than average. Factors favouring poor summer production are the usual ones of high temperatures, rainfall not meeting plant requirements and the lower than normal level of water in the major irrigation storages.
Spring conditions have the biggest impact on dairy farming from a pasture growth perspective, so this will have a much bigger influence on climate risk management than summer itself. Areas that have experienced a poor spring are potentially more exposed to any risks associated with adverse climatic conditions in the summer months ahead. Farmers in this position are encouraged to place a little more emphasis on risk assessment and managing it if they haven’t already started.
Dairy regions across Victoria received much needed rainfall in late November and early December which has made a significant difference to prospects this summer. For irrigation regions, it was possible to extend the irrigation interval in early December for those who received significant rain. Southern Rural Water (SRW) has announced a 35 per cent water allocation on 15 December against low reliability shares held by Macalister Irrigation District (MID) irrigators, in addition to 100 per cent of their high reliability water.
SRW records show a lower than average inflow to storages throughout 2018. Lake Glenmaggie is currently at 72 per cent capacity, which means SRW has not been able to offer spill entitlement this season, assessed annually on 15 December. The last time it didn’t spill was in 2006 (12 years ago). History also shows that on average since the completion of the Glenmaggie Dam in 1929, it has spilt around 8 out of 10 years.
MID farmers who have not experienced a “no spill” year, are encouraged to do a water budget to determine ways of improving current water use efficiency; therefore, most likely reducing the water they may need to buy in.
Pasture and crops
Soil moisture at the end of spring was low for most of East Gippsland and the northern parts of the state. Following the heavy rain in late November and some early December rain, pastures will begin to recover, and growth rates can be expected to improve in the short term. The late November rainfall will also make a significant difference to summer crop yields.
Other parts of the state, South and West Gippsland and the South West of the state, have generally had a good November and will be expecting a continuation of good growth into summer.
Spring harvest was mixed, with some areas having an excellent silage season. Others have had a poor spring.
Given that farmers need to have feed supply match feed demand (of their herd), many will be looking to complete a fodder inventory to help make decisions around purchasing fodder (quantity and quality required to fill any anticipated feed shortfall). They will be considering the cost of feed compared to the milk price and the ability to make a margin. Also, poor cash flow is influencing some farmers’ purchasing decisions. In the drier parts of the state, many farmers have already opted to reduce milker numbers to decrease the amount of purchased feed needed.
There is a reduced supply of fodder available and prices are currently quite high, over $400 a tonne in Gippsland with cheaper hay near the grain growing areas. A key issue is hay quality. It is recommended buyers know the quality of the feed they intend to purchase and be sure it is fit for the intended purpose/class of stock.
The prospect of a warmer summer with an equal chance of it being wetter or drier than normal will also be factoring into decision making. To what extent will grazed feed offset some of the need for purchased supplement?
The more exposed you are to the risk of not having enough feed, the more emphasis should be placed on a plan to manage that possible risk. The plan could be a staged one, such as purchasing some feed now and then monitoring feed reserves over the coming months to see if further purchases are required. Likely future trends in feed availability and possible price movements also come into play. If it is anticipated that a significant drop in availability of fodder or a significant increase in price, will occur, a good risk management strategy is to purchase more of your fodder early.
The supply of grain has been patchy up to early December due to cooler weather impacting on the local harvest and prices are currently still high at around $415 per tonne or more, depending on where you are in the state. Using grain to fill a summer feed shortfall will need to be a considered strategy in line with risk management options, particularly in the drier areas of the state.
It will be interesting to watch the weekly grain market report provided by Dairy Australia.
The winter dry has severely impacted all irrigation storages and the MID will not have any Glenmaggie spill water to add to their 100 per cent high reliability allocation. With the recent announcement of 35 per cent of low reliability water share, MID farmers may need to choose how they use their allocation to the best effect and whether any additional water should be purchased. Spring silage yields were poor, but hay yields may improve with the latest rain events especially on dryland blocks.
For northern Victorian irrigators, in early December water was trading at around $410 per megalitre on both the Murray and Goulburn systems. High reliability water allocations have increased to 94 per cent for the Murray and 88 per cent for the Goulburn.
Using a rough “rule of thumb” where one megalitre of water grows one tonne of extra feed, farmers can weigh up the pros and cons of using this more expensive water to grow more pasture or crop compared with buying in more expensive grain and fodder that is facing many this summer.
However, if using this 1:1 rule bear in mind that you need to assess it in the context of your individual farm management system, time of year etc.
Consequently, you will likely have to adjust this water applied to pasture growth gained ratio, up or down accordingly. To keep up with how water is trading throughout Victoria be sure to visit the Victorian water register.
The cooler than normal weather in November, combined with higher rainfall has seen milk production hold or increase compared with the warmer and drier October that Victoria experienced.
However, with the forecast of hotter weather over summer it is a timely reminder to look at ways to reduce heat stress. Dairy Australia provides information and a heat stress warning system that is worth subscribing to (provides a warning/alert on your mobile device).
Of course, there is always potential for very hot and dry weather over summer and radiant heat is one of the biggest factors associated with heat stress. Consideration for shade is key. Keeping water up to the cows during hot weather is also very important.
Bottom line for summer 2018–19
- No clear prediction on whether summer will be wetter or drier than average under an El Nino event for South East Australia.
- Spring conditions have the biggest impact on dairy farming from a pasture growth perspective.
- Areas that have experienced a poor spring will potentially be more exposed to any risks associated with adverse climatic conditions in the summer months ahead.
- There is currently a limited supply of fodder available of variable quality, and prices are quite high.
- Higher water prices particularly in the north of the state will provide a challenge for irrigators this summer.
- As a rough rule of thumb one megalitre of water grows one tonne of extra feed.
- Buy in irrigation water as a last rather than first option; focus on improving water use efficiency first.
- Always be on the lookout for ways to reduce heat stress in all classes of your stock.