Managing the season ahead
David Shambrook and Maria Rose, Dairy Services, Agriculture Victoria
The three-month climate outlook for all of Victoria, is a likelihood of this winter being drier than average; with both days and nights likely to be warmer than average. With such an outlook, strategies around risk of a following drier than average spring in Victoria's dairy regions are also worth serious consideration, as part of developing a longer-term management approach.
As of the start of June, soil moisture is looking variable across the state. Where more rainfall occurred over autumn in the Western Districts and South and West Gippsland, the soil moisture in the root zone is currently mostly between 44% and 65%. A drier winter will reduce the likelihood of waterlogging periods through winter. In contrast, where autumn rain was less in the North East Irrigation region, the Macalister Irrigation District (MID) and the Coastal East, the root zone soil currently moisture is much lower (mostly between 7% and 12%). A drier winter is more likely to be unfavourable as moisture reserves are not sufficient for pasture growth.
Implications of milk price
The general feeling amongst Victorian dairy farmers is that milk price in the new season is likely to be at least as good as the 2107–18 season; some are reasonably confident that it may be a little higher. Given that we are in the last month of this financial year, it is timely to make serious budget projections for the 2018-19 season (if you haven't already). Don't forget to allow for a 10–15% increase or decrease in milk price, and also for potential increases in variable costs.
Your dairy factory field officer, accountant or bank managers are key people that can assist you with cash flow budgets. Handy budgeting and farm business performance tools are easy to access on Dairy Australia's web page at www.dairyaustralia.com.au/farm/farm-business-management.
Implications for growing pasture
The probability of warmer winter temperatures is certainly a plus for pasture growth.
However, for those who currently have low soil moisture levels, it will be important to plan several strategies for making up for the shortfall expected in pasture growth through winter. There will be a need to look at fodder reserves on hand and consider supplementing with bought in feed of the quality that is required for the class of stock needing it. For example, milkers will need to have access to milker quality feed with higher energy content and adequate fibre, as well as protein.
Equally important for those with favourable soil moisture levels currently, strategic application of nitrogen may well be a key part of the plan to grow more pasture.
As pasture growth is generally lower over the winter months, especially from late June through to early August, you may need to consider a range of options. These include drying-off date, agistment of stock, supplement feed purchasing decisions and strategic nitrogen use. It is best to apply nitrogen when conditions are likely to favour at least a 10:1 (kg of DM per kg of N) growth response and the soils are not waterlogged.
Implications for feed purchasing
Fodder and grain prices have continued to rise over autumn. Heading into winter there has been a noticeable spike. Also, many have exhausted their home grown and or stored feed sources. Consequently, this winter it is more important to do your sums on cost per megajoule of energy for the various feeds you are considering to buy in.
Farmers with low fodder reserves and exposure to the risk of a dry spring will need to buy on the basis of the quality that best meets their stock needs. This may need to be verified by a feed test, as some mature and rain affected hay was made last season and some was made from frost damaged crops. It is too early to say what this season's hay prospects look like.
Implications of a dry winter and a following dry spring
Particularly in the NIR and MID regions, there is concern that a drier winter will result in very little or no water allocation next spring. Planning out the various trigger points and likely courses of action, writing them down, discussing them with a range of people and monitoring your progress will certainly help minimise future stress implications.
A range of relevant dairy support services are available on the:
Implications for feed management
Both the yield and quality of home-grown silage was quite variable, depending on when the crops were planted and harvested. Farmers may be considering improving the quality of the ration by using higher energy density feeds such as grain. If pasture availability is low, high protein supplements such as canola may also be worth considering. Remember that pasture is generally high in protein (almost as high as high protein supplements), so good amounts of pasture in the diet will reduce, or perhaps eliminate, the need for protein supplements.
A feed plan for winter will help determine the need for purchased supplements. It is a good idea to monitor your feed plan monthly and adjust it as required in response to various conditions as the season progresses. Dairy Australia has feed planning resources on their web site (http://www.dairyaustralia.com.au/Pastures-and-Feeding/Feed-management/Feed-planning-and-purchasing.aspx).
Having a feed plan not only helps with determining how much supplement to purchase and when is the best time – it also assists with when and how much to set aside for feed bills.
Agistment of young stock or dry cows may be an option worth considering, depending on price and availability. Don't forget to factor in transport costs. It is also important to determine how long the feed will last, as sometimes the feed doesn't last long enough to make it a viable option.
- Developing annual budgets that factor in a 10–15% milk price drop or increase, as well as a 10–15% increase in variable costs will be beneficial.
- Signs for winter pasture growth are generally positive.
- Consider your exposure level to a drier than normal spring following a dry winter.
- A feed plan will help with feed purchasing decisions, opportunities for nitrogen fertiliser use and cash flow management.