Case study: Ron Cornall, Clifton Creek, East Gippsland
When we last heard from Ron in early March 2018 he talked about his high exposure to the risk of a delayed or very weak autumn break, and that his trigger points would kick in every fortnight (start of the month and middle of the month essentially). At that time, he saw his management priorities as re-sowing with fodder crops and building pasture ahead, drying off his milking herd early and buying in more fodder before prices got too high.
This time around I managed to talk with Ron on two occasions; once in mid-July (the middle of winter) and then again very recently at the end of the second week in September (two months apart). In my earlier interview with him back in mid-July, Ron said the following:
“The autumn break didn’t happen. The increased fodder storage is essentially what we purchased and brought in. Growth after grazing so far this winter has been extremely poor – virtually next to nothing. The milkers were taken off the dairy farm milking area, which is our usual practice, but 2 weeks earlier.”
“We started calving again in the last month (from mid-June.) Freshly calving cows are nearly fully supplementary fed on silage, cereal hay and a high protein pellet. Currently (11 July), we are in what I call a “green drought” as the paddocks look green because of timely small rain events and warmer winter temperatures but on scrutiny, there’s very little pasture content. We are grazing the milkers on a 90- day rotation trying to allow for pasture growth ahead. The Italian rye we sowed earlier than usual back in late February (as we anticipated an early break), although it struck well enough, it has just sat there, growth wise.”
“Even with the dry milker cows off the farm the paddocks haven’t changed much at all, so they are all “fairly” open. Since May, we’ve been following the milkers with direct sowing cereal oats (grazing type) into the open paddocks, with the plan that they’ll grow a bit late winter and early spring, providing us with a bit of home grown feed. This is probably the most encouraging hope we’ve got looking forward. In a lot of paddocks there’s pasture composition. These oats were sown over a large area in a light application and since about a fortnight ago (late June) when we got 6mm of rain (the best we’ve had for a long time).
They’re up now and the hope is that these broad casted oats will provide us with some feed mid-August into September. My worst-case plan is that there wouldn’t be any (or very little at best) oat crop until mid- September, so we’re covered for fully hand feeding until mid-September as we bought enough in to get us through until then, at least.”
“As far as our other goals go, now in the middle of winter we’ve got less water and less feed on hand. It was planned that the Italian rye will be a help in a bonus capacity. In my calculations I haven’t factored that crop in as they weren’t looking promising at the time I did my latest feed budget calculations. I suppose the fall-back option is, if we’re running short of fodder and we still hadn’t had any growth, by mid-September, that we would destock more again. Even back in March, we’d carried out quite severe destocking (14% of our herd - 230 back to 200 to calve this 2018-19 milking season). I guess it depends how bad it gets. We anticipated that this is the worst-case possibility even three months ago. So that’s follow on - less cows, having enough fodder on hand, given the risk of not being able to purchase fodder in the market because of higher future demand.”
“The crop still hasn’t performed to its potential yet because it is winter time and there’s no bulk of feed ahead, so I guess ‘steady as she goes’ would be my attitude.” We are maintaining a very long grazing rotation to maximise any potential growth and we are making that happen by making sure that the cows are fully fed with other sources of bought in feed.”
“At the back of my mind (and this is probably jumping ahead), the trigger point for us is the soil moisture content of our soil root zone profile in August. If we haven’t started to get significant moisture in our soil profile (root zone) we will be running into severe problems. Potentially if we go into spring without adequate soil moisture (El Niño which has been hinted at becomes a reality in other words), that’s potentially dire for us. I think we’ve exhausted our fodder reserves (bought in feed included). If this next spring fails, that will be the third failed one in a row for us.
I guess 2016-17 wasn’t a disaster spring for us like 2017-18 was, but it was tough and since then it’s got tougher. As we managed to get through last season, we are confident we will get through the rest of this current winter. We’ve still got some on farm silage that we made in 2016 (which we’ve kept, having in mind that we may need a reasonably good source of supplementary feed up to two seasons ahead). In a month’s time mating starts, so the cows must be in good condition then. This silage is needed particularly in terms of balance of protein for the milker herd diet. Bought in protein is very expensive and the cows need it as they are not getting the protein source from short winter feed this time round.”
“I’m even planning for the possibility that we may not be milking the cows come Christmas time (three months before normal dry off time) as our stock water reserves are enough to get us through to Christmas so they need replenishing well before then. The potential of an El Niño summer on top of fodder reserves being depleted is certainly a concern for us. Of course, there’s always the chance that El Niño won’t happen and that we could still get an east coast low with 70mm and it wouldn’t be a big issue at all. But until we get significant rainfall events and runoff, we won’t have several years of supply of water on the farm and we are currently into the last 6 months of that. There is no back up alternative for us regarding water security, as we have no access to creeks or bores.”
“In the meantime, while we wait for significant rain, there are still ways of tweaking the farm’s operation which are just as important as we don’t want to be throwing away what we’ve built up. There are still options that will help. There’s always the option of reducing cow numbers. Also, certainly with some rain (so not the worst-case scenario of no rain), where we could get benefits from the crops we’ve already sown. Then there’s looking at sowing spring/summer crops; I am seriously considering the options of extra millet this summer using water that might become available. If we ended up getting a reasonable spring with less cows we could be making silage by 1 October and wondering what we’re going to do with it all. When they’ve all calved – we’ll be milking 200, which is about 15 per cent down on normal. In previous drought seasons, we’ve dropped back to 180 and then further back to 150 around Christmas time. There’s the potential for us with reasonable milk prices that will allow buying in of concentrates to be a viable action later in the season.”
“My philosophy is that the worst possible situation is the most serious and that has to be covered; you need to be prepared and have done all the planning for all the scenarios from the best right through to the worst. So, if you are prepared planning-wise for the worst, it’s a great relief when you’re proven wrong (i.e. that the worst-case scenario doesn’t eventuate).”
When I spoke with Ron more recently the second time (mid-September) to see how he faired in the last half of winter based on his strategies discussed above, he added the following:
“There was very little growth over the whole of winter; everyone in the district is talking about how fodder has become very expensive and hard to get. As there has been no winter run-off, we certainly need decent rain events between now and December; there’s some reliability in low rainfall over the next 3 months which gives us some hope. So, decent rain by December is now an even more critical key trigger point for us. One other key strategy in addition to cutting back the milking herd from 200 currently to 150 and drying off the whole herd at Christmas that we are seriously considering is, going to once a day milking.”