A water audit in spring 2015 underscored how precarious the pasture situation was for Lardner, Victoria, dairyfarmers Rob and Jenni Marshall. The audit showed they had only five days' reserved water on their property, if a natural spring near the dairy dried up.
Already deep in a drought, with little pasture, it was alarming news. The couple relied on the spring to fill dams and on rainfall to support pasture and forage crops. But at that point, the rain was lacking.
Although they could plan to improve water storage and infrastructure, it would take considerable time and funding to implement.
Lardner in West Gippsland is an historically reliable heavy rainfall district ù 1000 millimetres of annual average rainfall ù so it well set up for dryland dairyfarming. However, in recent years, rainfall has been up to 25 per cent below average and last year it was unreliable, with some monthly falls as low as 17mm. "Last year was our lowest rainfall for six years," Mr Marshall said.
The farm is a mix of red loam undulating country with some grey loam flats and grows perennial ryegrass pastures.
The Marshalls milk a self-replacing Friesian herd of 320 cows on the 121 hectares, using a 20-a-side herringbone dairy, aiming to produce 1.8 million litres, but in recent dry conditions annual production has reached only 1.2 million litres. Heifers are grown out on a 57ha agisted block.
Annual calving begins on July 31 to match the farm's pasture cycle.
"We calve once a year from July 31 because I can get a bank of grass and by the end of the calving, spring feed is coming on," Mr Marshall said.
The natural spring-fed dams have an annual allocation licence of seven megalitres for dairy and stock water only. Effluent is spread on paddocks from a 2.6Ml dam, pumped out periodically.
Usually 0.8 tonnes/cow/year is fed but last year this was lifted to one tonne/cow.
On-farm harvest of silage usually produces half the herd's fodder needs, but this season when Mr Marshall realised the harvest would only yield half that quantity again, he bought 120 tonnes of silage. "We also buy standing grass and process it ourselves," Mr Marshall said.
This season's pastures, apart from lack of rainfall, were also affected by cockchafers ù 50 per cent of the farm had to be re-sown. He decided to diversify his risk and planted 21ha of forage crops for the first time this summer, which had mixed results, with poor germination due to lack of rainfall and a consequent long delay on grazing.
"We got nervous as the season went on and we didn't want to risk having lack of feed, so we diversified into chicory, rape and millet as part of a risk-management strategy," Mr Marshall said. "Unfortunately, growth was offset by poor strike rates."
The lack of ready pasture and forage crops meant he began feeding silage in late November, rather than January.
His response to the drought was:
bought more feed by any available means;
forward bought grain;
culled herd early - normally Mr Marshall culls the herd at the end of the lactation, but began the process from November;
culled empty cows immediately after pregnancy testing;
herd tested in January and set a threshold of eight litres/cow/milking and culled anything producing less;
maintained a 30-45 day grazing rotation compared with a normal 45-60 day rotation; and
culled regular mastitis offenders and cows with high cell counts.
"I'm prepared to bring the herd down to 280 and rely on heifers to bring the herd up when conditions improve," he said.
"We've got a lot of empty silos and empty sheds, so I have to be firm about culling. And as quick as we've been making money, we've been spending it.
"Production is down 30 per cent the past two seasons and it's two years since our milk output hit the peak of 1.8 million.
"But the pasture you grow is the cheapest feed, so we're doing all we can to keep that going.
"We're feeding cows to maintain their condition and not worry about production."
Ongoing work included applying fertiliser and urea, finding affordable agistment for dry cows and monitoring for cockchafers and black beetles.
When it comes to pasture renovation this year, Mr Marshall said he was interested in changing to ryegrass variety AR37 and expected to renovate at least 50 per cent of the farm again, including a lease block.
"Our agronomist told us AR37 was cockchafer and root-aphid resistant," he said. PGG Wrightson Seeds Australia markets AR37 as a late maturing, high-yielding densely tillered ryegrass, resistant to a number of Australia's major pasture pests, including cockchafer and root aphid. It can be grazed 55-85 days after sowing, requires a minimum 650mm rainfall, and is recommended for high rainfall dairy regions, such as Lardner district.
"I'll be sowing down 50:50 annual and perennial ryegrass," Mr Marshall said. "I'm hoping for an autumn break in the third week of March. As a rule, we get over 100mm.
"I'm also considering a winter turnip crop or similar ù maybe 8ha ù because of the lack of hay.
"I think, unless the season turns around dramatically, there'll be no feed on agistment and what agistment is available will be expensive.
"So I'll be spreading fertiliser and urea to get as much feed bank up as possible. We get cold winters, where there's little grass growth; so lack of feed is a risk because cow condition will go down.
"Our biggest fear is getting another infestation of cockchafers and black beetles."
In the medium and long term, Mr Marshall's plans were investing in water infrastructure for pasture feed. That includes utilising the effluent dam and laying underground pipes and standing pipes across the farm to irrigate pasture and crops.
Future infrastructure also included installing tanks to catch rainfall from sheds, which could be used for dairy washdown, stock water and paddock irrigation.
Other farmers in the area had irrigation licenses for O'Mahoney's Creek, part of which ran through the Marshall property. Mr Marshall thought it was time to investigate an irrigation licence, for stock water. "We've got some major investment in the future," he said.