This is the third consecutive year of drought for East Gippsland, Vic, dairy farmers Veronica and Neil Joiner. The experience has caused the seasoned farmers to make hard decisions in order to keep milking.
They opened a silage pit laid down six years earlier, as the availability and price of fodder became harder to manage.
Mrs Joiner is responsible for herd health and milking on their Newmerella, Vic, farm, while Mr Joiner focuses on growing grass and harvesting fodder.
The couple own 205 hectares of mostly dryland, undulating country 20ha is irrigated hill country, watered by a boom irrigator and used to run young stock. They also lease a 50ha irrigated block country surrounding the local sewerage farm, connected to fixed sprinklers where they grow cereal crops and pasture, harvest hay and silage and grow out heifers.
Soils are flood plain river flats of heavy sandy loam, rising to a narrow depth of sandy loam over clay on the hill country.
"Soil fertility is high. We use lime every seven-to-10 years and we sow with fertiliser," Mr Joiner said.
"All our bought-in feed (during the drought) means we haven't mined the soil's fertility. When the cows grazed fresh pasture, they were only allowed in for two-hour blocks. So we won't be putting fertiliser down this year in the sacrifice paddocks, where the manure load is higher."
Mr Joiner regularly oversows with perennial and annual ryegrass varieties.
His pastures compete with weeds that include shepherds purse, marshmallow and capeweed.
"You spend a lot of money on seed, so it needs to be worth it," he said.
"So you need to prepare your paddocks. I plan against prairie grass, which is well known for being invasive around here."
He has been oversowing kikuyu with a rape and an annual ryegrass, to come up as frost knocks the kikuyu down. But in the past couple of years, late frosts have extended the grazing value of kikuyu.
"Normally late March would frost the kikuyu, but that hasn't been happening. It might end up being part of the normal growing system," Mr Joiner said.
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He has also used irrigation in August to push pasture growth into an early spring.
"I focus on growing grass because green grass gives you easy protein for the cows," he said. "I manipulate the system where I can to get a value product."
There are more than 50 paddocks in the rotation, with 44 part of the effective milking area. Higher ridges and other sections of the farm are fenced off as part of their environmental stewardship.
"At our peak, rotation is 18 days. In winter, that can extend out to 60 days, to get leaf growing," Mr Joiner said.
Mrs Joiner said in a normal year, they bought in a truckload of oats for cows to calve down with, while everything else was home-grown.
The milking herd is normally 250-260 cows, annually producing 540 kilograms of milk solids each. The herd of spring calvers is bred in a three-way cross from Holstein, Jersey and Red cattle.
"They're not too big and they produce quite well," Mrs Joiner said.
In the past couple of years, herd size has reduced to 180 cows.
"We started reducing the herd in September 2016," Mrs Joiner said. "We usually carry over cows, but we sold 30 head."
In May 2017, they sold empty cows.
In late 2017, Mr and Mrs Joiner participated in Taking Stock before asking for an on-farm meeting with a business consultant to discuss their options to reduce overheads and afford to buy fodder and feed.
"Talking about it in July was really hard, but we had no winter rain so we had to take pressure off the paddocks, to make as much silage as we can to keep milking," Mrs Joiner said.
They expected to calve down 260 cows, but sold late-calving cows to take pressure off themselves and the business. Mrs Joiner said the consultant helped them work out a feed budget for 200 cows.
Growing enough fodder for a normal year takes good management; producing it in a long-term drought challenges exceptional management.
Mr Joiner said a lot of the decisions around making fodder were about managing grass growth in the paddock rotation.
He usually expects to harvest 1200 bales of silage and 300 bales of hay the majority of it a ryegrass-based pasture with "a little bit" of lucerne.
"In an extraordinary year, we'll fill the silage pit," Mr Joiner said.
Using pit silage
In the 2017-2018 season, milking an average 240 cows, they bought in 100 tonnes of oats and 300t of vetch as hay, as well as 1500t of pellets for each cow.
As pressure on feed supplies grew across the country, they paid more than $500/t for pellets. They harvested 900 rounds of pasture silage off the farm.
They also opened the silage pit, laid down in 2012, and fed out 240 square bales from it.
Feed tests before they fed it out showed values of 10 megajoules of metabolisable energy per kilogram of dry matter and 14 per cent protein.
"We grew a lot of grass that year. We had rain at the right time," Mr Joiner said.
"It was cut in spring when it was going to seed. It was drier and had a bit of fibre. That shows in the protein test."
In preparing the pit, they hired an excavator to shape the sides, which were lined with plastic. Plastic was laid over the top of the 240 stacked bales, then dirt overlayed.
A big part of long-term management was keeping the cows off the surface of the pit.
When it came time to take the silage out, they hired an excavator again. The cost was balanced against the difficulty of finding quality hay coupled with the cost to purchase and transport it.
Mrs Joiner said sometimes they ordered fodder and it simply was not there when the truck driver turned up to collect it.
The excavator was hired as required, to remove the layer of half-a-metre of dirt from the top to allow access to the bales.
One of their management challenges was feeding out the large square bales taken from the silage pit, when their feed cart is best suited for round bales.
"We had to hand feed those square bales out. It was very physical," Mrs Joiner said.
They fed the pit silage to the milking herd in April and May last year.
"The cold kicked in, we had frosts and we ran out of feed. It made sense to open up the pit," Mr Joiner said.
"We used the silage to mix the right ration for the cows and we manipulated to get a value product."
Four bales of the pit silage was mixed with a bale of cereal hay and the cows had access to green pasture.
Managing the 2019 season
The success story of spring 2018, as Mrs Joiner described it, was harvesting 350 bales of cereal silage and 550 bales of grass silage. It was achieved by reducing milking numbers to 180 cows and using the irrigation right to grow grass ahead of the herd.
In the past 12 months, Mr and Mrs Joiner averaged a milking herd of 200 cows (reducing to 180 cows) and bought about the same tonnage of pellets per cow and 161 tonnes of oat and vetch hay.
"We made a lot more silage. We did this by reducing the number of cows we were milking, so we could make silage," Mr Joiner said.
He harvested 900 bales of pasture silage and mild weather saw him harvesting the lucerne crop into May this year.
"Milking less cows meant we didn't have to buy as much fodder. There was less stress on us," Mrs Joiner said.
They were able to buy chopped maize silage locally in autumn this year and laid down 162t DM in the pit. It has only been covered with plastic as they intend to use it this season, feeding transition cows as they calve.
"We've got high protein grass for grazing. The low protein maize with a high ME quotient will be a good combination," Mr Joiner said.
"As it turned out, we would have been better off with two silage pits. We've planned for that now.
"The competition to access and buy silage was intense. But it has to be excess pasture that we're harvesting, to go into the pit.
"When you're doing a pit, you need multiple paddocks out of rotation to have that surplus. So you have to get your pasture management right.
"I won't lock up large chunks of the farm to harvest fodder."
He plans to grow chicory and lucerne on the river flats this year and measure its success against the season.
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