Managing the season ahead
David Shambrook, Dairy Services, Agriculture Victoria, Leongatha
The three-month climate outlook (June to August) released by the BOM on 30 May 2019 suggests a drier than average winter being more likely for Victoria. The Bureau’s ENSO outlook is at El Nino watch level and there is weak El Nino-like conditions in the pacific.
Forecast models are also suggesting a drier phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole may develop in winter and spring. Daytime temperatures during winter are very likely to be warmer than average with more cloud-free days and nights leading to an expected increased risk of frost in susceptible areas.
For much of the state it was a warmer than normal start to autumn combined with low rainfall but finished wetter and cooler in May. Rainfall was variable across the Victorian dairy regions throughout autumn.
Some areas including coastal areas of South Gippsland, some parts of East Gippsland and the North East received good rain in March and April and have been able to generate a pasture wedge or establish winter fodder crops.
The break arrived in May for the South West, South and West Gippsland and the Northern irrigation District, reducing the amount of pasture expected to grow before winter so the predicted warmer winter would benefit these areas.
For the irrigation regions, the high cost of water led to less being purchased and fewer irrigations. Irrigators, in the usually reliable Macalister Irrigation District (MID), saw almost all water allocations utilised due to not getting any spill water.
Many irrigators will be hoping that the good rain experienced in May will continue through winter to fill the major water storages, allowing for full allocations to be granted by water authorities in the new season.
Key issues that dairy farmers are likely to be considering this winter include assessing farm fodder reserves, both their irrigation and stock and domestic water options and production scenarios.
The importance of these will depend on how cold and wet it gets through winter and whether enough rain occurs to fill water storages and to grow crops.
It is always valuable to have some plans and options ready to implement depending on some identified trigger points for your farm.
Even though the forecasts suggest an increased chance of drier than average conditions for this winter, it is important to consider that even under an El Nino watch situation the chances of a wet winter is still possible, and some areas in the South West and South Gippsland have already had a wet May.
So, some planning around this possibility still needs to be part of the consideration.
Pasture and crops
Soil moisture at the end of autumn is improving after starting from a low base in early March. Those parts that received rain in March and April have now got established crops and pasture and developed some sort of feed wedge.
The majority who had the late break in May, combined with the plummeting soil temperatures, have missed this opportunity but still can generate some quick feed by growing cereal crops. Also, there is the chance to use nitrogen fertiliser to generate some quicker growth.
The cheapest source being urea at around $690 per tonne or $1.48 per kg N, with expected winter responses being 10 kg DM per kg N.
This produces pasture costing 14.8 c/kg DM; even allowing for wastage when being grazed, it is still very competitive with buying-in any extra fodder or grain.
The predicted warmer day temperatures through winter may help to generate some more pasture compared to an average winter but could be counteracted by the occurrence of frosts.
Monitor the weather forecasts to make sure that there is sufficient rain and suitable temperatures to encourage uptake of any nitrogen or other fertilisers that may be applied.
Winter conditions can have an impact on pasture growth and the effective utilisation of pastures depending on how wet the soils get. The amount of pasture growth achieved between the autumn break and the coldest part of winter (July) will dictate how much of the fodder reserves will need to be used, especially for autumn calved herds.
Areas that have experienced a late break or no break at all are more exposed to the risks of running out of fodder or buying more expensive feed as a replacement.
Those farmers who have not yet had good rain for the autumn break, for example, Central Gippsland, are encouraged to continue enacting their risk management strategies as best they can until seasonal conditions turn around.
South West Victoria and South and West Gippsland still have some on-farm fodder supplies, even though these have been severely reduced by the conscious decision of many to feed more home-made fodder as a way of reducing the level of high-cost grain being fed and along with having a late autumn break.
Generally, there should still be enough to satisfy fodder demands in these areas unless the winter comes in very wet and cold.
Supply of good quality fodder is scarce with prices currently quite high at $450 to $550 a tonne in Gippsland, depending on type, and cheaper high-quality hay nearer to the grain growing areas. A key issue is hay quality, as lower quality pasture hay is selling for almost $440 a tonne.
It is recommended buyers get a feed test of the fodder they intend to purchase and be certain that it is fit for the intended purpose/class of stock.
Some farmers will still be looking for fodder to fill feed shortfalls; the decision whether to purchase more fodder and what quality is required, depends on the magnitude of the shortfall and whether it is to feed to milkers or dry stock. It will also depend on how long it takes to generate enough home-grown feed.
If fodder is to be bought, the quality of the feed and cost compared to other feed sources available, the cost of it compared to the milk price and the ability to make a margin must be a consideration.
Recent announcements about milk price by some companies suggest the price could be in the range of $6.40 to $6.80 per kilogram milk solids which can assist with decisions around buying-in more fodder. However, those recovering from the dry seasonal conditions will be looking to make the most of the fodder they can access and feed to their milkers.
The prospect of a warmer winter with an indication that it is likely to be drier than average should also be factored into decision making. To what extent will grazed feed and any nitrogen boosted pasture or crops 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 may be to buy fodder you will need now to fill expected shortfalls as it is likely that prices will continue to rise and supply will continue to dwindle, given that the autumn break was late in most areas, and the continuance of drier conditions in parts of the state and other parts of Australia.
The supply of grain still remains tight and prices are currently high at around $380 to $460 per tonne, depending on where you are and the type of grain.
Using grain to assist in filling winter to early spring feed shortfalls could still be a viable option, given the relative costs of fodder and water in some areas. It will need to be a well-considered strategy in line with risk management options.
Grain supplies are expected to remain tight until the next harvest, with prices staying high. Continue to monitor the weekly grain and hay market report provided by Dairy Australia.
Cash flow an issue?
Many farmers are facing cash flow challenges with the high costs of grain and fodder. For some, reducing their fertiliser costs would normally be in the mix.
However, given the milk price looks to be more positive from July onward the opportunity to use nitrogen fertilisers to boost pasture growth may still be on the cards.
It is important to do your sums and determine the best options for your situation. The Dairy Australia ‘Dairy Cash Budgeting Tool’ may be of assistance in working out what cash you may have available.
In the MID, Lake Glenmaggie, the major water storage, was sitting at 7.3 per cent full at the time of writing, but has just begun rising again with the latest rains.
Many will be praying that the catchments remain responsive and storage levels continue to rise to ensure a good allocation.
For northern Victorian irrigators, the high cost of temporary water has impacted on how much water was purchased for irrigation, which has resulted in a late autumn irrigation start-up.
The early autumn rains combined with that in May has helped to increase inflows into the Goulburn and Murray system storages. Water costs are expected to remain high in the short-term. Decisions will need to be made as to what price farmers are prepared to pay, the volume they can afford to buy and the potential yield of the pasture or crop it is utilised on.
This will need to be compared against the cost of alternatives such as bought-in grain and fodder. To keep up with how water is trading throughout Victoria be sure to visit waterregister.vic.gov.au.
The climate outlook will be closely watched by irrigators, along with monitoring stream flows using the BoM stream flow forecast tool found at bom.gov.au/water/ssf.
It is hoped that good rains do keep coming to enable greater stream inflows, even though the predictions are for increased chance of drier conditions.
The bottom line for Winter 2019
- There is an increased chance of winter being drier than average for Eastern Australia including Victoria.
- There are weak El Nino-like conditions in the Pacific Ocean and a risk that a drier phase of the Indian Ocean Dipole occurs later this season.
- Consider using nitrogen fertiliser or sowing cereal crops to generate more home-grown feed now that there is soil moisture.
- Do your sums on using grain or fodder, consider quality, even with the expected better milk price.
- Use feed planning to determine the amounts and quality of the feed you may need through winter.
- The climate outlook for irrigation storages is not ideal but recent May rainfall events have improved soil moisture and may help inflows to storages through winter.
- As a rule of thumb, one kilogram of nitrogen fertiliser produces 5 to 15 kilograms of pasture dry matter, depending on the underlying soil fertility and temperatures encountered during the winter growth period.
- Continue to monitor or access what support is available to assist with getting through the current dry conditions. See our Dry seasons support page.