Managing the season ahead
David Shambrook, Agriculture Victoria Dairy Services, Leongatha
Victorian seasonal conditions coming into spring are variable, with only South West Victoria and coastal areas of South Gippsland having adequate rainfall enabling there to be moisture at depth in the soil.
A significant portion of Gippsland, mainly east and south of Morwell has been much drier than normal having had a failed spring last year and a failed autumn.
Much of the north is also drier than usual having not received much rain through autumn and winter. The extent of spring pasture growth will be mainly reliant on how much rain occurs in the next three months.
The three-month climate outlook provided by the Bureau of Metrology is predicting a drier than normal spring with warmer days. If this eventuates, home grown feed production will be a premium with the need to make the most of any rainfall event. Areas where soil moisture reserves are adequate going into spring should see good early pasture growth but there may be a need to conserve feed early before the season cuts out.
On the other hand, where soil moisture reserves are already low coming out of winter, significant periods without good rainfall may lead to little or low levels of spring pasture being produced with no opportunity for fodder being made.
The production of grain and hay across Victoria is also looking inconsistent with the Wimmera having had good rain but the Mallee looking for more to produce any grain at all. This situation could result in grain and hay prices continuing to rise, making it difficult to make any sort of profit margin using these feeds.
It would be fair to say many grain growers are hopeful for good spring rain and no frost damage to enable good yields to be achieved. As always, spring rainfall will have a big impact on yield.
Factors favouring average spring production include, good soil moisture in some areas, irrigation water storage being average (with Glenmaggie at 63 per cent and allocations guaranteed at 85 per cent this could improve with lots of snow melt), and low odds for average rainfall over the next three months.
Factors influencing a poor spring are the low soil moisture content and low stream flows in significant parts of Central and East Gippsland as well as northern Victoria.
Cost effective home-grown fodder?
One of the keys to managing seasonal variability is making the most of a good year to balance out the poor ones. From a feed input point of view, this spring could end up being one where making the best use of the costlier grain inputs combined with more aggressive use of nitrogen fertiliser will be required to maximise pasture growth with the expected lower rainfall in many districts. About half the annual pasture growth is expected to happen in spring on dryland farms, so it is an important three months.
As usual, the focus will be on making plenty of high quality silage and hay.
Where winter soil moisture is less than normal, farmers are focusing on producing more pasture or possibly some early silage to help offset the risk of an early finish to spring. There are current reports of late-winter growth rates still being quite low due to low soil moisture levels e.g. East Gippsland, so everything needs to be geared towards making the most of any larger rainfall event from now on.
On the other hand some soils in the South West are waterlogged and will grow quickly when they dry out.
Maybe this is the year where some farms may have to cut early because soil moisture is low and there is a chance of a short spring or cut late silage if the soil is waterlogged and only starts growing when they have dried out. Whether there will be any hay at all will depend on the incidence of any larger late spring rainfall events.
If you are likely to be in position of any of the previous two scenarios, it would be worth talking to your contractor about the possible change to your normal need for their service as soon as this becomes apparent.
The relatively low nitrogen price is favouring the use of urea to boost spring production especially in areas where soil moisture is already average or above, and even in areas where soil moisture is low but sufficient rain has fallen to promote pasture growth. This could mean just having more pasture to feed stock or having more available for conservation.
It is important to do the sums to be confident that this is the lowest cost feed option to do the job. For example, at $640 per tonne for urea, nitrogen fertiliser costs $1.39 per kilogram of nitrogen.
A 15-kilogram dry matter response per kilogram of nitrogen means the cost of the extra feed is around 9.3 cents per kilogram dry matter or $93 per tonne. Add to this the conservation costs, say $140 per tonne for a contractor to make silage, and the cost is about $233 per tonne.
There are losses in storage and feed out, which will add at least 15 per cent, making the cost around $268 per tonne consumed.
The estimated cost can be compared with other options for filling the feed gap.
Grain or hay unlikely to be cheap?
With cereal grain selling for about $420 per tonne (depending on locality), it does not compare favourably with nitrogen boosted silage. Grain contains about 10 per cent moisture so $420 per tonne fresh weight is about $467 per tonne of dry matter.
Grain is about 12.5 MJ ME of energy or 3.7 c/MJ ME. With average quality silage being about 10.5 MJ ME of energy or valued at around 2.5 c/MJ ME, you may be better to spend money on nitrogen to grow more pasture, if its more energy that is needed.
Using the examples above, the cost of nitrogen boosted silage is cheaper on an energy cost compared to cereal grain.
Currently, hay is also very expensive and is hard to source (it needs to be good quality, 10 ME plus, if it is being fed to milkers or young stock plus wastage needs to be factored in). Any sort of hay season will help to lower prices but with it currently around $450 per tonne (cereal or Lucerne hay), and in short supply, it will need a complete turnaround in the season to see the supplies change and prices drop.
There are three things to highlight here:
- First, it is important to do the numbers for your situation on a “feed consumed” basis.
- Secondly, there is a risk around each of the options (what price will grain/hay be when I need it?), what response to nitrogen will I get, what quality silage will I make and what wastage?
- Thirdly, is it only energy you need? For example, there are times of the year on most farms when pasture is in short supply and it is high quality fibre or perhaps protein that is needed to balance the ration.
Cash flow an issue?
Many farmers are facing cash flow challenges which may relate to the season, production levels, and possibly the milk price. For those farmers, it may be worth considering the option of not boosting spring pasture as much as normal (reducing fertiliser and fodder conservation costs). It may even mean that some destocking may have to take place to reduce the feed burden to a more manageable level.
With less silage harvested, feed supplements would need to be purchased later in the season as feed gaps arise (and cash flow is better, or milk price improves). Alternatively, it might be a year where any purchased feed is very expensive and there is a greater reliance on generating as much extra home-grown silage or hay as is possible. As always, do your sums and assess/weigh-up the risks.
Where irrigation water supply is potentially limiting, farmers are focusing on watering pastures early in the spring where the response to water is at its best. If water runs out, at least they will have made the most of what they had available.
For those that are in the position of being able to purchase water, the decision will be more an economic one. Is purchasing water to grow extra feed a better option than purchasing your feed needs?
As we get further into spring, we will know a lot more about both the water and the feed price situation. Some may prefer to wait and see what happens with water availability and its price. Others might have a water price in mind and purchase water when they hit their target price. Others may see the purchased-feed market as a preferred option for filling feed gaps, or they may consider a mix of purchased water and feed.
Stock and dairy shed water supply for non-irrigated farms
Dry seasonal conditions can affect the reliability of farm water supplies including farm dams, waterways and shallow groundwater aquifers. Risk strategies for managing water supplies includes reducing the volume of water needed, having adequate water in storage to supply the farm and/or having access to multiple supplies of water.
The first step is to assess how the farm is going for water, by checking dam and groundwater levels. Focusing on reducing losses now will help ensure the supplies on-farm will go further. This can be done by fixing leaks, recycling effluent for yard washing, and storing water in one larger dam to reduce evaporative losses rather than storing water in lots of smaller dams.
Reducing stock numbers early can also help to reduce the demand for water on-farm. Securing alternative supplies through fixing pumps or windmills or accessing a waterway if it’s flowing (with consultation with your Rural Water Corporation) could be important strategies, to reduce the risk of running out of water.
- Make the most of whatever you are dealt this season.
- As there is nothing certain about the seasonal forecast, a risk management approach is needed.
- Know your risks and level of exposure to each. The greater your exposure to a risk, the more emphasis needs to be placed on mitigating that risk. Take a planned approach.
- Is this the season for you to conserve as much fodder as possible to offset the possible shortage of any expensive purchased fodder, maybe even put a pit of silage away for a tough year if the opportunity arises?
- Is this the season where you look at growing an early summer crop to increase the chances of carrying feed into summer when faced with the prospect of a short Spring.
- Consider having a trigger point to enter the feed and/or water market later in the season.
- If spring fails, maybe a trigger point for reducing feed demand needs to be in your plans (e.g. reducing stock numbers). It is not a good idea to have more mouths than you can feed.
- A financial budget and feed budget will help with your decision making.
- Reducing water now will help on-farm storages go further if runoff is limited.