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Can't buy me rain....

We have only owned our farm since March 2012 and I think I’ve figured out the problem with farming already. The problem is that the most crucial input, the weather, is completely out of the farmer’s control! Not only that, it seems to be impossible to predict accurately. Some years will be average, some will be amazing and some will be awful, and you never know what you’re going to get, but you need to always plan for the worst. Sometimes I wish we could just pool our money and buy some rain, but of course, it’s the one thing that we can’t buy.

Our largest dam

We made two mistakes this year, and we are determined to learn from them and become better at managing our farm.

The first thing we did wrong was overstock our property. We knew we had too many cattle, but at first we had an awful lot of excess grass, so it seemed like a good way to clear the property and find out where all the stumps and logs were lurking in the long grass. Also the Brafords were doing a great job of eating the African Love Grass that we wanted to be rid of, so it seemed like a good plan at the time. We planted forage sorghum and millet, so we knew we had enough to feed the cattle when the rain came.

Our second mistake was believing the weather forecast. Back in winter, we saw forecasts for a wet spring. This encouraged us to plant forage and to keep the cattle. We did have a little rain, enough to plant the forage, but it was not a wet spring. During spring, we were told it would be a wet summer, so we thought the forage would grow and we would keep the cattle. At the same time, things were going pretty badly in western Queensland and the cattle market was flooded with animals anyway, so it wasn’t a good time to sell. During summer, we slowly realized that it was not going to be a wet summer, in fact it was the driest and hottest on record in some parts of Queensland. The cattle gradually ate through the remaining grass, we fed them molasses, hay and mineral supplements (which then became difficult to buy), as the forage that we had planted wilted in the field. The cattle market got worse and worse, until the meat works were booked out weeks in advance. It has become increasingly difficult to buy hay for the cattle and we are now running out of surface water (dam water) for them to drink.

If we were depending on these cattle to make an income (like real farmers), we would now be faced with an awful decision. Either try to keep the cattle alive buy hauling feed and water to our property, so that when things improve we still have some breeding stock, but get into massive debt in the process, or try to sell the cattle while they are still in good condition, and at least get a little money for them and let the property recover (but have no hope of an income for over a year and the certainty of having to buy back cattle later when the prices have increased). Fortunately we have an off farm income and that makes the decision easy. We decided to sell as many of the cattle as we can, and leave the hay and water supplies for the real farmers that need them more than we do.

It’s a shame to see the Brafords go, we’ve only had them for a couple of years and they have made some lovely fat calves for us to sell, and done a great job of eating the African Love Grass, but we now we are thinking of trying a different breed. Maybe something smaller. We will wait for the grass to grow back before we buy anything else though!

What did we learn? Don’t overstock the property, don’t get stuck with stock when the market goes bad and don’t believe the weather forecast. What are we going to do differently? Increase our water supply (bigger dams and a bore), develop permanent pasture on our cultivation ground instead of planting each season and be more flexible with cattle numbers (fewer breeding cows and buy and sell weaners when we have the grass for them). As for the weather, I have never thought about the weather so much in my life as over the last 2 years and I still have no clue how to predict or understand it, I will be doing some reading…

What have you learnt from the drought/weather at your place recently?

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Comments

  1. It's so true. The weather used to be something to chit-chat about with people at the supermarket, now it is this giant, obstinate force that gives and withholds as it pleases. I'm sorry for the dry summer you had and having to give up your beasts. :( We got a little rain out here in the desert. It was beautiful. Though the winds are here now, drying it all up! Naturally.

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    1. Thanks Amy Lou, I love the way you described weather, its so true, and I had a quick peak at your blog, I am looking forward to reading about a different climate :)

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  2. Its a balancing act isn't it? I'd be interested to hear what smaller breeds you might be looking at in the future. We are thinking the same way. We've just bought a small 40ac place on the Southern Darling Downs and will hold off at least 12 months before putting any stock on. Even the sheep we currently have are getting very expensive to feed. Looking forward to hearing more....

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    1. Thanks Barb, your project sounds interesting too, and probably wise to wait for some rain at the moment! I will share our small cattle ideas soon....

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  3. Lovely post Liz. It's a vicious cycle, everybody wants to sell at the same time and buy at the same time. Interestingly enough, I don't see the price of retail beef dropping too much in our two big friendly supermarkets who have been getting their beef for next to nothing over the last 6 months or so.

    We have 43 breeders on 400 acres in the Somerset region, and so we are quite nervous at the moment. Like you, we have off farm incomes, and it really makes you appreciate how tough it is to live off the land in this country.

    I would like to see what Geoff Lawton could do with a western QLD/NSW cattle property to diversify their income / feed sources. Understandably, when there is no water, there is no water, but you can't help but think that with some resilience and diversity, our farmers could do much better.

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    1. Thanks Glenn, good point, although there are plenty of farmers who do to try new ideas and build diversity, we also meet plenty of traditional farmers who are stuck on the fertiliser and spray cycle and can't seem to think of any other way to do things. I suppose its like any business, the innovators survive adverse conditions, and the rest struggle, its just a shame there are so many lives involved when a farm fails (people and animals).

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  4. We're in exactly the same position as you Liz, except most of our heifers are in calf, so it is hard to sell them off at the moment. Our dam is completely dry, and we are now buying in feed and water. Luckily we do have off farm income, but we still struggled financially to spend over $1000 last week just on hay...in the year and a bit we have been here we have had flood and now drought...I am already in despair over when we may get rain...I feel so sad for the farmers who can't get or afford feed and water for their livestock...

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    1. Hang in there Deb! I wondered how you were going, I know you only just got started, and that's so hard because you haven't had time to get to know your property and organise infrastructure. We keep thinking that this is the worst it can get and an opportunity to plan how we can prepare for future droughts. Do also have a look at the assistance you can get if your area is drought declared, you may be eligible for something to help get your cattle through.

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  5. You are one of those wonderful people that sees each obstacle as a learning experience. When the drought was in the Hunter Valley , one of the things I thought about was things other than grass I wish I had planted like tagaste and pigeon peas so that the sheep and goats had something else to eat as they are not normally ground feeders anyway .
    You are so wise to be destocking until things get better . I imagine you are already planning what to do when the rains come though . (and they will come , even though it doesn't feel like it , it will rain again)

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    1. Hi Kim, I was thinking the same thing! Surely some established fodder trees will survive better than grass, we are thinking of planting them on the contur banks in our cultivation areas. I have been saying "its got to rain eventually" since October, I am starting to not believe it any more!

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    2. Things always get really bad before they get better. We were much the same and thought all the same things , I was even starting to look up plants that grow in the desert and our cattle were about to be booked in to all be sold ,but the rain came in the end.

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  6. Great Post Liz and you are right to look on the bright side and it is great that you can learn these things early in your farming journey while you both have another income. You have a very real insight in to the current plight of our farmers and at least as you say you have an off farm income. We only have a couple of cows to worry about but the grass is getting very burnt off even when it does grow. We will probably be moving our freezer cow into the freezer sooner than we otherwise would have but like you we are glad that we are not real farmers at the moment. It annoys me that the weather reports keep promising rain and nothing happens, grrr.

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    1. Thanks Fee, we are thinking the same for our freezer steers at eight acres, just have to eat all that beef from the last steer to make room for them! Yes the ongoing weather forecasts are extremely optimistic and inaccurate, I've stopped listening....

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  7. I've never watched the weather forecast as keenly as I do now we have a property with cattle. I watch for rain, for wind and for fire weather. The weather dictates so much of what we can and can not do. We are lucky to have a small property and off farm income. We chose Dexter cattle as they are smaller and good 'doers'. They are still doing well on what can only be described as very dry grass in the pasture and a bit of supplemental feeding. We have a low stocking rate and haven't had the devastating drought conditions of further north.
    The lessons for this year as to catch hay in the paddock near the house both as a fire break and summer feed for the cattle and to install the water tanks we have tied to a tree (long story involving an empty tank and a strong gust of wind). Nothing grows without water.

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    1. you are very sensible to match your animals to your climate and pasture, we are going to make some changes...

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  8. I'll sell you some of ours! I grew up watching the forcast and to speak while the 7 day forcast was on in the summer would get you sent from the room faster than anything! It's all about luck and timing.
    I'm going down the opposite route to you and planning on what I can plant that likes the wet, so I'm putting in a few hundred willow for firewood and to dry out that area of the field.

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    1. well we all have to work with the conditions that we have don't we! That's all part of the challenge :)

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  9. What haven't I learned from the dry weather? How about everything dies - that's not entirely true; but everything just goes into a slow stasis where it holds on for that next storm. I've actually noticed that the leaves on my plants grow smaller, when they're living in dry conditions with no canopy cover. I was going to do a post on this soon. I think it's a coping mechanism to keep the plant alive in dry, hot conditions. With smaller leaves, they need less moisture.

    If I were going into farming cattle, I'd build swales on contour, plant it out with edible hedgerows and have a canopy tree every 20-40 metres (on the swale). This would lower the temps the cattle would have to endure during the day, so they'd need to drink less. Just walking to the dam would dry the cattle, so I'd hope to have a tree corridor to shade their way.

    If that sounds excessive, its to meet the extremes in weather we've got nowadays. I've seen what one good canopy tree has done for my garden, versus the hundreds of eucalyptus trees that don't want any competition underneath - not to mention the bare ground. That cooks, even under grass. It takes a long time to grow canopy trees, so I plant a lot of pigeon peas in the meantime. Planted thick they help shade one another.

    I hope it rains for you soon. Keep trying at what you so obviously love doing. I think the best insurance for a cattle farmer is looking after the land. If it produces a lot of green leaf per square metre, your cattle will survive the harsh times. It's when you've only got grass, or other single feed crops in designated areas, that they aren't enough in extreme weather. Food, shade and moisture have to be connected closely, so in between rain events, you've got pockets of production which don't become exhausted. I wholeheartedly agree that rain means everything, and we're hanging out for it too. :)

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    1. thanks Chris, I appreciate all your observations, and I agree about the trees, we find that grass grows better in the shade too. We need to figure out how to store more water in the soil, dams, tanks, etc!

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