Planning for pasture bushfire recovery

Dairy farmer planning for pasture bushfire recovery

Dairy
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Craig Calvert is planning to feedlot his dry cows and heifers as an interim measure to manage his pastures after bushfire scorched his farm in late December.

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Craig Calvert is planning to feedlot his dry cows and heifers as an interim measure to manage his pastures after bushfire scorched his farm in late December.

It will enable him to exercise options while he re-fences paddocks and sows pasture and crops on the farm's 65-hectare outblock. In the aftermath of the bushfire, he has had to manage the additional pressure of moving heifers and dry cows to his dairy farm to graze. This reduced his rotation options for the milking herd.

Craig Calvert is the seventh-generation of the Calvert family to farm this land at Mossiface in Victoria's East Gippsland. The current 180ha was once part of a bigger pastoral holding that has been carved up with successive generations.

The dryland dairy farm has a mix of hill and river flat country. A bore sunk in 2018 provides water for the dairy. The bore and a drain into the nearby Tambo River provide water for livestock.

Taking on the farm in mid-2018 has not been without its challenges. Mr Calvert has learned to manage the farm during a period of unstable and depressed prices in the dairy industry, in the middle of an ongoing drought, followed by the bushfire on December 30 and 31, and a flash flood in mid-January. About 25 per cent of the herd was also affected by Theileria disease last autumn.

Mr Calvert's focus since taking over the dairy and milking cows has been on improving herd health, genetics and pastures. He redesigned the paddocks to allow a 28-day grazing rotation and concentrates on growing crops in larger paddocks.

"I wrote out the key criteria for keeping cows in the herd," he said.

"Our focus is on growing the herd. We should see positive outcomes in herd production and performance in three to four years."

Production has also been helped by sowing sorghum, lucerne and ryecorn as crops to harvest as green chop or to bale, alongside the ryegrass and clover to graze.

Bushfire in three waves

On December 30, Craig Calvert finished milking at 3.45pm and let the cows out, just before the impact from the bushfires.

"The bushfire came through in three waves, through the canopy and then the trees and understorey, and Patch and I spent the next 13 hours fire fighting," Mr Calvert said, describing the night he and his father, both with considerable fire-fighting experience, stayed to defend.

"I turned up to milk the cows in the morning and spent the rest of the day putting out spot fires," he said.

Then the assessment began. A pile of 500 fence posts burned to ash. A tether rake with three of the four tyres burnt. Tanks destroyed. A lot of country burnt, along with fences.

"I put out the fire around the tether rake six times," Mr Calvert said.

"About 300 metres of internal and 6.7km of external fences were burned."

The 65ha, including 16ha of bush, housed the heifer and dry cow paddocks.

The 500 fence posts were cut out of the bush and would have been ideal to use replacing the burnt fences - if they hadn't been burned to ash themselves.

Now, in cleaning up the burnt landscape, Mr Calvert is collecting firewood for winter.

His grandfather's old sawmill was destroyed, as was the old wharf hut, moved on to the property many years ago for safekeeping to avoid it being destroyed in one of the Tambo River's wild floods. Both are part of the district's history.

But the smaller maize rack was saved. Fortunately, the bushfire stopped before it got to the dairy farm's paddocks nearby, where more historical maize racks stand, along with hop kilns on nearby farms.

Drought, fire, flood, then pasture

Then two weeks after the bushfire, a flash flood swept through the gullies after 105 millimetres of rainfall on January 20.

Sorghum sown and just germinated before the fires, has sprung out of the ground. But with no fences, Mr Calvert cannot put the heifers to graze the crop. Nor, without fences, can they graze the kikuyu, which has taken off on the slopes. A lucerne crop further up the gully has also taken off after being flood-irrigated for 12 hours during the rainfall event.

The heifers have been joined in a 50-head mob, running in a small paddock on the dairy platform with the dry cows.

"But the heifers are causing all kinds of trouble. They haven't been trained to electric fences yet. They have full bellies and they're like teenage girls, getting up to mischief," Mr Calvert, a father of daughters, said.

This is why he is going to move them back onto the outblock, but in a feedlot. Mr Calvert has a history of feedlotting livestock before he moved into dairy farming.

"I will stand my dry cows and heifers in a feedlot paddock. I can control how much the heifers are eating and they'll learn to settle down," he said.

"It's important to manage heifers so they don't get too much green feed."

He is feeding 185 megajoules of metabolisable energy per day to the milking herd, currently down to 160 cows, in a mix of green chop lucerne, silage and hay (all home-grown) and six kilograms of grain mix.

After harvesting the sorghum grown this summer on the outblock, in autumn he will sow ryecorn.

"We grew ryecorn last year on the dairy farm. It produced in bulk and goodness, providing fibre and starch," Mr Calvert said.

"I got three cuts off it between autumn to the start of spring. It grew very well in frost country in winter."

He harvested it as a green chop for the cows.

He's also considering sowing barley and oats in the autumn, again to harvest as green chop.

Come spring, sorghum will definitely be part of the mix, possibly with barley.

"I'll do a fair bit of ryegrass and clover oversowing pasture this year," Mr Calvert said.

Duncan Machinery has donated a pasture renovator to farmers in the district to help with pasture renovation work after the bushfires and Mr Calvert has booked time to use it.

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