ONE of the good things about living at Methane Meadows, our two-acre block in dairy country, is that you can mark the passing of the seasons from your window. The cows wend their twice-daily way up the hill to the milking shed. There’s the cutting and baling of hay in early summer, the feeding out through to winter. It’s a soothing symphony of rural permanence. You know that God’s in His heaven; all’s well with the world.
But it’s not that simple, says environmental activist, Moragh McKay. Life is increasingly unpredictable. “We’re preoccupied with certainty,” she says. “We need to get better at managing uncertainty.”
Moragh is interested in how farmers juggle complex phenomena like varying rainfall and grazing pressures. She admires the way they call on past experience and shared knowledge to produce food on a daily basis. She cites the 1997-2007 drought (known as the “green drought” because areas like South Gippsland had more rainfall than other areas and the soils had more moisture-holding capacity). It was an eye-opener for some farmers to discover just how dependent they were on a regular rainfall.
Working with Landcare, Moragh observed farmers experimenting with cheaper and more natural forms of soil conditioning, becoming more intuitive, more responsive to particular needs, more sophisticated in their practices.
IT WAS the drought that compelled Krowera dairy farmer, Andy Thomas, to review his farming practices.
“That one season caught us off guard,” he says. “We’d coped with lower rainfall. Some of the dams we had were inadequate but we’d never needed to monitor that before. Then during that one long dry summer, one dam and one natural spring was all we had left on 250 acres and 200 cows to be watered.”
Some needs they could respond to quickly. They borrowed money and enlarged some of the dams.
A 10-year drought forced Krowera farmer Andy Thomas to experiment with new practices.
Then they turned their attention to the depleted soil and grasses. The original clearing meant a lot of topsoil had been washed away. Over decades of farming, Andy’s dad, in good faith, had spread tons of super every year. “Nowadays, especially with higher stocking rates, we know soils need more than that.”
He noted that perennial grasses didn’t seem to handle the really hot summers so he planted different species on the north side of the hill. They tried chicory which reduces in productivity over three-four years but with its long tap roots copes with a hot north wind. “I’ve noticed that wind since the drought,” says Andy. “Maybe it was there before and we just didn’t take enough notice.” The drought has brought nature into sharper focus. ”On Black Saturday, leaves were turning brown.”
Planting trees has helped. “We’ve planted out a lot of our gullies with native species. In hot weather you feed out under the trees. Cows don’t handle heat well, go off their milk; they could drop four or five litres a day. They need as much water as possible and the least amount of walking.”
Andy attends a regular discussion group of 20 to 25 dairy farmers and says it’s got real value. “All farmers need to be switched on about how to run their farm. If they’re not sharp, they’re going to go under.”
The Hooks’ long-term goals are intertwined: life on the land and economic independence. During Daryl’s years of teaching they’d improved two small properties and invested in the Pound Creek property with the proceeds. Their intention was to support themselves financially through their old age by creating a viable commercial enterprise. Their ethics are the old-fashioned sort: the challenge is to live frugally and remain independent of government assistance.
It’s been a risky enterprise. A grazing property has to be resourced and their resources were limited. They didn’t want to use chemical fertiliser and they couldn’t afford it anyway. They had to experiment with alternative cheaper practices and take the risk of not getting it right.
In their early days they made a compost of crushed rock and chicken litter. Today they work with two 100 metre long compost piles made of chicken litter and free green waste from the Inverloch tip.
Daryl sprays his paddocks with his own home-brand tea. A means of getting bacteria and fungi absorbed into the soil food chain, this tea is a suffusion of worm-rich garden compost, molasses and maybe some stinging nettles and comfrey dumped in a tank of dam water. “There is no scientific evidence that this recipe works,” Daryl admits, but says in the quest to find natural solutions to nutrient needs, “the only thing you have to ask is are you doing any harm.”
They’ve planted about 5000 trees every year, over 23 years. “Trees get the cattle out of the cold wind that blows up Andersons Inlet. And the grass grows better because it’s protected from extremes of temperature.”
They’ve dug a huge dam. “We’ve got enough water to survive serious drought. And we always keep a stockpile of feed. We never sell or buy any.”
Scientists from the Department of Environment and Primary Industry have started running tests to check for soil productivity and the break-up of root matting. If you’ve got good biology in your soil, the potential for improvement is enormous, Daryl says. “If you get a microscope and dig up a teaspoon of soil you’d find millions of organisms in there. It’s just a mystery!”
The testing has only just started but other evidence is coming in. Their stocking rate is impressive and more importantly, their life on the land – with all its attendant aspects: the birds, animals, plants ─ is now self-supporting. No mystery there.
“Perhaps,” says Moragh, who likes to think about these things, “managing rainfall change is a metaphor for life.”
Daryl and Margaret Hook are holding a field day on their property on July 31, when DPI scientists will carry out their testing program.
OVER in the reclaimed swampland of Koo Wee Rup, Maurie Cafra and his family operate Cafresco Organics. Like his parents, Maurie had used conventional methods to wrest a living out of the famously heavy, acidic, often water-logged soil.
Maurie was looking for new markets, he didn’t like poisons and his intuition told him that there were alternatives, but going with his gut feeling wasn’t easy.
“Moving into the unknown is risky,” says Maurie. “It needs to pay financially. When you’re living among conventional farmers, there’s a real pressure not to be different. If you fail, you won’t get much sympathy. It stops a lot of people.” The antidote to change, the old trick of double dosing your front paddock with fertiliser, is not unknown.
The Cafras started cautiously with a crop of potatoes, trying a mix of chook pellets and water soluble chemical fertiliser from a commercial supplier. The next year they just used chook pellets. Then they started to make their own compost. Years of research and trial and error later, they make enough to supply the whole farm.
The Cafresco recipe is a succulent mix: packing shed waste, other vegetable waste, locally sourced chicken and cow manure, old hay or wood chips to optimise the carbon to nitrogen ratio, lime, trace elements, seaweed, fish extracts. Science at the soil face.
The result, predictably, is a nutrient-rich, more friable soil less prone to water logging. Its improved water-holding capacity reduces water needs.
But organic farming has brought all sorts of additional, unforeseen benefits to the management of weeds and pests. “You learn how things balance,” explains Maurie. “I wasn’t aware of the role of beneficial insects. Because there are no poisons on the place, we’re no longer killing the parasitic wasp, which keeps the aphids under control.”
Working with nature rather than against it, he thinks differently. “Don’t look for quick fixes,” he says. “Think long term.”