THE CLIMATE KELPIE BLOG: Future-proofing the dairy industry in uncertain times
Adaptability is essential for any successful agricultural business, but the dairy industry has been through a particularly challenging period dealing with everything from drought and changing water availability, the supermarket milk-price wars and a shifting public attitude to animal production.
Gippsland dairy farmers, Pete Neaves and Kate Mirams along with their three teenage boys, are taking every opportunity they can to meet these challenges head on.
“We’re adapting our business to hotter temperatures and a more uncertain irrigation supply, but it isn’t just about maintaining productivity,” says Kate. “People’s attitudes to agriculture and food are changing and we need to demonstrate that we are rising to the challenge of meeting their ethical and sustainability expectations.”
Pete and Kate bought their 160 acre (65 hectare) dairy farm in the Macalister Irrigation District 16 years ago and leased another 80 ac (32 ha). With some additions over the years, the family now hold 330 ac (134 ha) of rich and productive alluvial soil along the flood plain by the Newry Creek.
They milk around 240 mixed breed cows and have approximately 70 one-year-olds on the home farm. Rising two-year-olds are on agistment nearby. Despite increasing the land area in recent years, they have chosen to keep stock numbers low to give them the opportunity to renovate pastures and improve the soil. Some 30 to 40 acres of relatively unproductive creek and lagoon area has been fenced off for regeneration with trees and shrubs.
The majority of the land is flood irrigated, with around 50 acres spray irrigated.
Changing water availability
“Our ability to access water is changing,” says Pete. “In the past we had a more reliable irrigation supply from the Newry creek. However, in recent years water availability in the creek has declined and we’ve needed to restructure our system to access the channel supply for this area.”
“The creek supply has dwindling under multiple pressures including drier conditions and changing upstream land use. The creek also benefits from seepage out of the channel system and we expect it will be unusable once they’re are converted to a pipeline system in the near future.
One strategy now is to maximise the use of rainfall on the property.
“We want to create a better environment for mycorrhizal fungi to improve soil organic carbon and access to nutrients and lift the soil’s water holding capacity,” said Pete. “Each one per cent increase in soil carbon has the potential to increase our 300 millimetres soil water holding capacity by the equivalent of 17 mm rainfall.”
“Traditionally, our pastures have been based on ryegrass and white clover, but we’re now replacing some of our less productive pastures with mixed-species cover crops.”
One such underperforming area has now been laser graded and hosts a trial to compare straight grasses (summer millet and annual ryegrass) with a mixture of species including brassica, vetch, chicory, lucerne and more.
“Normally we would irrigate our pastures around 10 times over the summer, but our established lucerne/chicory paddock only needed four this year. We watered in early January, but with the milder finish to summer and some decent rainfall these deep-rooted pastures didn’t need any more until we sowed the ryegrass at the start of April.”
“We will definitely be renovating more of our poor-quality paddocks with a mixture of deep-rooted perennial species, particularly those paddocks that are harder to irrigate such as the ones that are currently reliant on spray irrigation from the creek.”
While the deep-rooted species can potentially make better use of soil water throughout the profile, Pete and Kate are working to maximise the value of all water on the property.
“We have set up systems to recapture irrigation run-off and store it in re-use ponds,” Kate said. “This reduces the loss of water and nutrients from the farm to meet both biological and regulatory demands.”
“We need to be very careful to limit nutrient run-off into the Gippsland Lakes. When water does leave the property, it flows via riparian strips planted with trees and understory plants to improve the water quality.”
Water also plays a vital role in managing cattle in the heat.
“The first half of the 2019-20 summer was particularly hot,” said Pete. “We haven’t seen these sorts of temperatures before.”
Pete and Kate have sprinklers in the yard and shift cattle to shaded paddocks when the temperatures exceed 30°C. The hotter it is, the earlier they are moved. When it exceeds 40°C the cows go straight to nearby shaded areas after milking where they are fed silage to minimise the need for walking.”
“We usually surface irrigate the paddock a day ahead to help cool the air flow,” said Kate. “Often we will put off the evening milking until the sun drops or we get a sea breeze, but we haven’t been able to rely on those lately.”
“While hot weather is a big challenge, consumer pressure in the form of ethical food choices will have a growing impact on the dairy industry.” said Kate. “We need to demonstrate that we are good custodians of both our animals and the environment in the long term.”
“That means adopting procedures such as no induction (using drugs to induce early calving) and using anaesthetic when de-horning calves.”
“We can’t plan our irrigation too far ahead as our water supply is based on an annual storage and the main fill period is from October to December,” said Pete. “We normally get a starting allocation on August 15 and will water the whole farm then to maximise our spring growth.”
Pete and Kate use the Bureau of Meteorology short, medium and long-term seasonal forecasts and those from the local water authority (Southern Rural Water). They also attend Agriculture Victoria field days to get a feel for the season.
“In this area things can change quickly,” says Pete. “We may not have much water at the start of the season, and then suddenly the allocation increases and we have a huge amount. We can make plans but we need to be flexible.”
“This year we dried off about half of the farm in December to make sure we had enough water to irrigate the whole farm in March to kickstart the winter grasses. Then it rained in January and February so we watered everywhere we could to maximise the value.”
“Introducing more of these deeper-rooted mixed species pastures is really going to help us future-proof our summer feed supply and provide the best possible environment for our cows.”
The success of the entire business is highly dependent on looking after the health of our soil, our pastures and most importantly the health of our animals.”
Pete Neaves and Kate Mirams, 0427 308 589, firstname.lastname@example.org
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