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Milking the Weather – Seasonal and climate risk information for the dairy industry
Volume 11, Issue 4: Summer 2020–21

A full version of this newsletter is available in PDF and Word formats.


Welcome to our newsletter for summer 2020–21
In this edition:
  1. In a nutshell

  2. Rainfall, temperature and soil moisture summaries for spring 2020

  3. Climate driver update

  1. Kevin Fitzsimmons

  2. Craig Dwyer

  3. Brett Findlay

Victorian seasonal climate summary (spring 2020) and outlook (summer 2020–21)
In a nutshell
  • In general, Victoria’s spring was much warmer than average. Daytime temperatures were much warmer than average in eastern and northern Victoria and along the west coast. Night-time temperatures were much warmer than average over the whole of the state, with Gippsland and the central districts recording the highest night-time temperature on record.
  • Spring rainfall was in general close to average across most of Victoria. Averaged across the state, the year-to-date rainfall total was slightly above the long-term average at around 634 mm.
  • Analysing the BoM AWRA modelled soil moisture for early December 2020, pastures in the north west of Victoria are now predicted to be quite dry with only the Otways, West Gippsland and around Ballarat predicted to be better than 65 per cent full.
  • La Niña continues in the tropical Pacific. Oceanic and atmospheric indicators suggest a mature La Niña with little variation over the last fortnight. Model outlooks indicate this current La Niña event could peak at moderate levels during December and then return to a neutral phase during the late summer 2020–21 or autumn 2021.
  • The Southern Annular Mode (SAM) has been positive for this first week of December 2020 and is expected to increase to strongly positive values over the coming week. Positive SAM values are expected at least into early 2021, potentially providing an increased chance of rainfall in eastern Australia.
  • The sub-tropical ridge of high pressure was higher over south-eastern Australia in spring. This is a pattern historically correlated with lower south-eastern Australia rainfall. In the past 30 days, the Sub Tropical Ridge of High Pressure (STR) was centred over Adelaide, a normal winter position instead of over Adelaide, a normal spring position. It should start moving southwards to a normal summer position centering over Melbourne.
  • The assessment of 12 climate models for Victoria over the coming summer months of December 2020, January and February 2021 shows a consensus for likely wetter rainfall and no clear signal for temperature.
Rainfall, temperature and soil moisture summaries for spring 2020


The 2020 spring rainfall was average for most of the state (two to three decile range) and patchy elsewhere. The top north west corner and a large area in the south west had above average rainfall (four to seven decile range). It was very much above average (decile 10) in wetness between Warrnambool and Portland.

Below average (two to three decile range) spring rainfall was recorded in various areas over all of East Gippsland, in an area stretching across parts of South Gippsland and into the neighbouring Mansfield Shire, and along coastal parts of West Gippsland. 

Click here for seasonal rainfall decile maps
Click here for rainfall total maps

A map of Victoria showinng rainfall deciles for spring 2020


Spring 2020 maximum temperature deciles were essentially very much above average (10) in most of the top north eastern and all of the south western corners as well as most of the eastern half of the state. In the rest of the state it was above average (eight to nine).

The month of November was a scorcher, being some three to five degrees warmer over most of the state and also ranked in the highest ten per cent of years.

Click here for maximum temperature anomaly maps
Click here for m
inimum temperature anomaly maps 

A map of Victoria showing maximum temperature deciles for spring 2020

Soil moisture

For early December 2020 in a large part of Victoria lower soil (10–100 cm depth) moisture was average (in the decile range from four to seven). In the majority of the south west corner of the state (with the exception of patches of very much above average between Warrnambool and the South Australian border) and patches in the north east, soil moisture were above average. Patches throughout the north west of the state, west Gippsland and north east Gippsland were below average moisture levels. Pastures in the north west regions of Victoria are predicted to be quite dry with only the Otways, West Gippsland and around Ballarat predicted to be better than 65 per cent full. Click this link for the latest plant available water decile maps.

A map of Victoria showing plant available water deciles for spring 2020
Climate driver update

Sea Surface Temperatures

Regarding sea surface temperature anomalies, the La Niña in the central Pacific continues, with temperatures in NINO 3.4 just above the threshold for La Niña currently at –1.0oC. A massive amount of colder water under the cool surface means this event is unlikely to diminish any time soon. Trade winds kept building from the east during November, pushing warmer water around Papua New Guinea. Oddly however, cloud disappeared from north of mainland Australia which is unlike normal La Niña behaviour. The Indian Ocean, the Timor Sea and the central Indian Ocean are all very warm currently, meaning a better moisture source is likely over this summer. Click this link for the latest SST maps

A world map of sea surface temperature anomalies

Southern Annular Mode

The Southern Annular Mode (SAM) was positive for this first week of December 2020 and is expected to increase to strongly positive values overcoming weeks. This trend is likely driven in part by the La Niña influence, and partly by a stronger than average polar vortex over Antarctica. Positive SAM values are expected at least into early 2021, potentially providing an increased chance of rainfall in eastern Australia. Click here for the latest for the latest SAM graph showing observed and GFS forecasts

Graph showing that the Southern Annular Mode has been positive for the first week of December 2020

Southern Oscillation Index

The SOI decreased from a significantly positive and La Niña like value in October to a neutral value below +7 in November. Early Decmeber, 2020 the SOI has returned to a more significant La Niña like value of +10.9 indicating higher pressure at Tahiti than at Darwin. For the latest 30 Day Moving SOI map click this link.

Graph showing that the Southern Oscillation Index is trending in a strongly positive direction for the whole month of December 2020.

The Sub-Tropical Ridge

The centre of pressure was much further north at the top of the Great Australian Bight in November, blocking tropical moisture transport. The high in the Tasman Sea during November meant lots of northerly winds which increased temperatures. A normal spring position was seen over Adelaide, where in coming months the Sub-Tropical ridge should move south to be centered over Melbourne.

The sub-tropical ridge of high pressure was higher over south-east Australia in spring. This is a pattern historically correlated with lower south-eastern Australia rainfall. Also, pressure increased at Darwin, which is why the SOI is neutral, as opposed to lower pressure in a La Niña. Higher pressure to our north means poorer connections to tropical moisture. In the Indian Ocean, much lower pressure is off the coast of Africa, a pattern less conducive to south east Australian rainfall. 

See here for the up to date version of the mean pressure map and the anomaly air pressure map.

Mean pressure and anomaly air pressure maps from NOAA

Modelled Climate and Ocean Predictions for Victoria from May 2020 run models

The assessment of 12 climate models for Victoria over the coming summer months of December 2020, January and February 2021 shows a consensus for likely wetter rainfall and no clear signal for temperature trends.

For both a larger resolution and easier to read version of the Table of Modelled Climate and Ocean Predictions for Victoria (November 2020 run models) click here

A table showing the assessment of twelve climate models for Victoria over the coming summer months of December 2020 and January and February 2021.
Farmers managing seasonal risk successfully – December 2020 farmer case studies
Maria Rose, Dairy Extension Officer, Agriculture Victoria

In this edition of Milking the Weather we hear how three dairy farmers from across Victoria are responding differently to seasonal triggers including those in line with heading into summer 2020–21.

Once again, we catch up with Kevin Fitzsimmons from Merrigum in the Northern Irrigation Region (pictured left), Craig Dwyer from Bullaharre in South-West Victoria (pictured centre), and Brett Findlay from Towong Upper, near Corryong in North-East Victoria (pictured right).

From all three we find out:

  • how the previous season(s) have turned out for them (i.e. Kevin’s spring 2020, Craig’s autumn and winter 2020, and Brett’s autumn and winter 2020)
  • what their key seasonal risk management approaches will be this summer
  • about their anticipated risk level and related mitigation strategies beyond spring 2021
Collage of photos of the three farmers featured in this article. From left to right, they are Kevin Fitzsimmons, Craig Dwyer and Brett Findlay.
Kevin Fitzsimmons, Merrigum, Northern Irrigation Region

I last spoke with Kevin three months back at the beginning of spring 2020. Although winter pugging issues resulted in loss of some of their oat crop, the gain from having sown the oats early enough paid off in the amount and quality they were able to graze for the whole of winter. An unplanned strategy of buying-in enough good quality vetch at a profitable price to maintain milk production over winter also paid off. This time when I caught up with Kevin early December 2020, he had the following to say:

100 per cent water right
We’ve had a pretty good spring. We didn't get the rain that we were expecting from long range forecasts, in line with the Bureau’s forecasting of a La Niña but we had good rain in the catchment and that's allowed us to have a 100 per cent water allocation.

A fantastic hay season
Spring worked out pretty much as we had planned right at the start. We had a fantastic hay season, making in excess of three and half thousand rolls of hay. We’ve only just finished making all our hay less than a week ago.

Full on working schedule
Carting all the hay in is the next job in front of us. We are basically going through every step and ticking off the jobs as they come up and rolling onto the next one, so it's just been pretty full on. Currently it’s fifteen hour working days mostly due to a combination of everything, obviously with the hay, we just finished the last lot of fencing and so we've been buzzing around between doing the hay and fencing. We are also calving cows again. We calve down three times a year and have almost 70 to calve in December. Also, we have had that 20 hectares which includes the two hectares of decommissioned Goulburn Murray water channel to finish, removing all the old fences so that it can be laser graded, which is almost done now.

It’s just what happens!
Overall, we are probably a month behind where I thought we would be. That’s probably the only thing that really hasn't gone to plan over this last spring. It's been nothing really that is out of the ordinary that’s held us up – it’s just what happens when you have a number of people involved in various stages of the one project. 

Our best hay making season yet
Last year with 1,800 rolls was the best hay making year we ever had until now, which will be around 3,500 rolls (basically doubled what we would normally do).  This increase is mainly because we've taken on that extra 160 hectares of leased land which we’ve made a lot of hay off.  So that’s mostly created the extra workload this year. But we knew that would likely happen when we took it on.

Scheduling of first grazing of millet
I was hoping to have that 20 hectares of newly-lasered ground all sown down to millet by now, but it will probably still be a couple weeks away from that. That was the only section really that hadn't been done with the risers, the pipe had been, but the risers weren’t able to be attached until we knew the levels of the land. The levels will be worked out 2 December and hopefully the risers attached within a week of that. So, we’re now aiming for mid-December for the millet to be fully sown on that area and the first grazing in mid to late January.

Plenty of other pasture available
Despite this four-week delay with the millet, we’ve been able to water everything else so have had plenty of other pasture available for grazing. Now that the fencing is finished on the last section of the farm, which I couldn't put any cows on earlier, it’s back into the rotation taking a lot of pressure off. Even with the great harvest this year, we did have a few options from other sources of feed on hand to fill that paddock feed gap.

Irrigation water secured at a reasonable price
Our plan back in early spring was to buy in 200 megalitres of water and we thought we’d have to buy in more than that once we took on that extra 160 hectares of leasehold. Our budgeted buy in price for water was around $150. Although we actually purchased 260 megalitres at just under $150, we probably missed the boat a little bit. This was because the water price dropped down to around $100 about a month ago. We were hoping it would drop further (because of La Niña delivering some more rain) to around the $80 per megalitre mark, at which time we would’ve purchased it.  But all of a sudden, the hot weather came in the last couple of weeks and the price of water just jumped very quickly. Despite this, we actually ended up purchasing it for around the price I had budgeted on originally. So, I feel comfortable that we have secured our irrigation water now at a reasonable price given there was not much available on the water markets – fingers crossed we will have enough.

Oats recovered well
The oats on the new leased land produced pretty well even though it was sown late. Once we put some fertilizer on it and we received a few timely rainfall events we ended up with a very handy 1,000 rolls of oats.

Freeing up time
Putting on our worker has continued to pay off. There's no way we could have made up that 40 hours a week that he provides. He’s been able to do all those other jobs that we couldn't get to. Freeing us up from those other jobs has allowed us to get to all the fencing, apart from the newly lasered area of 20 hectares. It’s taken a lot of stress away.  

Watering in daylight hours
The pipe and riser system worked out well. At this stage, we've only been watering during the daytime because we've got such good flow rates now. We are probably only watering every second or third day, and it's only during the daylight hours. I haven't had to do any irrigating at night-time yet. Also, we can pick different paddocks across the farm to water, whereas before we'd have to water a whole section at once. Watering individual paddocks instead of individual sections requires that I need to write all actions down so as not to lose track of which paddock has been watered. Whilst this takes a bit of getting used to, it’s certainly a small price to pay for efficiency, a much lighter workload irrigation wise not having to water at night. 

Usual summer risk mitigated
Our main anticipated risk for this summer was not having enough water. That’s been mitigated as we’ve now managed to secure enough from the water market. Additionally, a welcomed upside of being a month behind with the lasered area and the sowing of millet on it, is water security for the first month of autumn essentially. We are always worrying about water security and that’s the biggest risk from one milking season to the next. This milking season we have 100 per cent water. We just had had a good spring on top of a great autumn and winter. Who knows what's going to happen in the future? We could go back to dry seasons again and that’s our biggest risk as irrigation water is by far our biggest cost if we have dry seasons again.

Well set up for the coming autumn
Regarding strategies for this coming autumn, with the water we’ve got, I can kick off our autumn pastures a fair bit earlier especially now that I’ve got the irrigation system up and running. This new system is going to be more efficient as I couldn’t reuse all the  water before the upgrade. Even if we do get an unexpected large and early rain event, I've got the capacity to store that autumn rainfall now and with the reuse dams and recycle pumps that I've now got, I can move it around the farm easily. Certainly, water use efficiency wise, I’m confident I’ve got autumn climate risks well covered.

Craig Dwyer, Bullaharrwe, South West Victoria

When we last spoke with Craig six months back at the beginning of June 2020 he indicated that summer 2019–20 was better than average as pastures stayed green until the new year. Also, as both last summer and autumn overall were kind, 25 more milkers were carried through.This time when we spoke with Craig at the beginning of December 2020, he had the following to say: 

Nitrogen application over winter and spring
Because the winter was so kind to us weather-wise, I was able to keep my applications of urea on an alternate five to six-week rotation over the last six months, as one full application rate and then a ‘pasture booster’ type of blend on the next application. So hopefully when we get our annual soil tests done in February 2021, we should see that the fertility on the farm has increased.

Best spring ever
Despite being in the middle of COVID, spring 2020 has been the best one ever! Given we are a wet farm, we had an exceptionally dry winter, which is superb for us, so I’d have to say it doesn’t get better than this, for us anyway. We did get 125 mm in the last week of August, which was probably a little bit too much rain, but that amount over a short time period essentially gave us maximum runoff and all dams are full.

Milk production considerably up
The dry winter was a key catalyst for our milk production in spring to be up by about 10 to 15 per cent. And then coming into that final wet week of August, it made things a little difficult getting some fertiliser out through September at times, but outside of that, it’s been as good as it gets. And then with the spring being both warm and wet, the grass has just been going ballistic here.

Pasture running to head quickly 
The problem we are having at the moment is actually managing pastures, trying to keep some quality in it. Although we were still building the pasture base up on this farm for high yields from an initially low fertiliser base, we definitely got more than enough silage for this coming season and given the way we're currently tracking (early December) we won’t be starting supplementary feeding in the paddock until the new year hopefully.

Our pasture is running to head quickly.  This has required us to run the milkers around quicker, making them eat more out of the paddock and feeding less grain in the shed. We are doing lots of topping with the mower to keep those seed heads under control in order to maintain quality in the pasture as much as possible.

Lucky break with fertiliser timing 
We’ve had around 25 mm of rain for each of the last two weekends. I put on urea three weeks ago when the soil profile was starting to get a bit dry, which at the tail end of November was a bit risky. But lucky for me the timing and amount of rain was in my favour, so those two rainfall events have made my fertiliser pay back probably sevenfold. Now the challenge is to stay on top of the grass growth response to keep up the pasture quality ahead of the cows.

Altering summer crop plans
Although we had planned to grow a lot more summer crops, given the spring we’ve just had, we actually haven't planted any as yet. But what we will do is once all grass has finally run to seed, we’ll spray paddocks out that are nice and close to the effluent ponds to utilize that water most efficiently, to grow a successful crop regardless if summer turns out too hot. I had planned to have at least four summer crops in by this stage (early December), but pastures just kept growing and supplying milker feed.

Carry over purchased hay
With the way this milking season has been going so far, we've been able to carry some of the hay that we purchased last season through. So, we probably won't be purchasing quite as much, but we still need a buffer of two to three hundred tonne of bought-in feed to cover either a dry summer and or potential poor autumn and or a wet next winter. All hay we purchase is as standing feed on a guaranteed 50 per cent of the harvest yield with first option to purchase the other half if needed.

Capitalising on a bumper harvest
The opportunity I see going forward is the ability to capitalise on what looks like being both a bumper grain and hay harvest. So, I need to weigh up if I forward contract some grain, and or do I still buy as much hay as is possible to justify and store in a reasonable manner. It only takes a bushfire somewhere else and a dry summer and all of a sudden, hay is in short supply!

I’m mindful of the last time we saw a season like this in 2016 and all the hay supplies had evaporated by 2018. Milk prices are still nominally reasonable for this financial year. Given that we're not having to put a high level of inputs in until at least the new year on this place, and if the rain keeps coming, the need to start feeding silage could be further delayed, a number of options are going through my head. Am I better off forward contracting that same amount of money into grain?

That’s the toss up I am facing. I still believe hay is money in the bank, it’s just in a different form to grain. I don’t have grain crushing facilities, so I am dealing with the middleman rather than directly with the producer currently. Self-sufficiency in crushing and storing grain is high on my list of important conversations to have in the near future.

Tax write off implications
Tax implications of a bumper harvest season is another thing I’ve been thinking about and weighing up in the context of unlimited tax write off being available to primary producers until 30 June 2022. But in the back of my mind I keep thinking there’s not much point in over capitalising your farm to get the tax benefit if you are going to end up with cash flow issues. Just because of the benefit, doesn’t automatically mean that you have the cashflow to be able to support it – so there’s more thinking I need to do on that aspect.

Pasture management plans over summer and beyond
There are plenty of spots in our wetter paddocks where I did spread fertiliser late last winter and early spring, where we made trenches with the tractor a foot deep. There was definitely permanent pasture damage as a direct result of this action.
So, our first priority through January and February 2021 will be fix all our wetter paddocks by installing appropriate drainage infrastructure. The aim being to get access to those paddocks all year round without causing damage, giving us the ability to put more foot traffic from cows over it.  Rather than cows taking one bite and pushing four mouthfuls under the ground, we should be able to keep the cows on top of the ground hopefully and maintain good soil structure simultaneously.

Risks over the next six months
Given the fact that I haven't got 2020–21 summer crops into what I consider are the ‘more tired’ pasture on the place, I am weighing up two options. Do we top-dress them and take them through for another year before a full pasture renovation? Or, do I just give them an oversow with a newer species in autumn 2021. Then it is a case of how kind next autumn actually is to us, due to the timing of the autumn break. If La Niña keeps rolling on and we stay green all the way through, establishing new pasture could be the challenge. I don't expect it to be, but it could be.

Culling decisions
We will be making strong culling decisions because we are currently milking those 25 extra cows we carried through from last winter. To keep all those on to carry through winter year on year, is not sustainable for us. We have heifers calving obviously next year in the middle of May 2021, so there has to be tough culling decisions made at some point through summer and autumn. Once pregnancy testing takes place in the next fortnight, we’ll be able to determine which ones are empty. So those will go first and then we’ll base it on mastitis history and then most likely age. Lameness is not high on our list of culling, as we have what I consider pretty good tracks and we have our own gravel supply to keep them maintained in pretty good ‘mickey mouse’ condition.

Brett Findlay, Toowong Upper, North East Victoria

The last time we caught up with Brett was at the beginning of winter 2020 in his moving recall of the fires in the northern Victoria last summer.This time (close to a year since they experienced fires), when I asked Brett for an update on what’s been happening in the last six months and what his forward planning strategies were from now on, he had the following to say:

Poor pasture production early winter
After the turmoil of last summer’s bushfire, we came into winter with less area on the dairy farm than normally re-sown, and that was done late. More needed doing but we were better off to leave it and take what we could off those areas, given that quality of even fewer desirable species is not generally too bad until later in the season. Needless to say, pasture production was not great through early winter and we had to feed high rates of supplement.

Aggressive use of nitrogen pays off
We used nitrogen aggressively during this period to maximise growth. Then we reached a tipping point in late July, early August when mild, dry conditions were aiding growth at the same time as the re-sown areas came into the grazing rotation. Despite being quite aggressive about reducing supplement and shortening rotation, with hindsight I didn’t go far enough or fast enough. In particular, I’m a bit wary of dropping nitrogen fertiliser use because it harms milk protein test, but in this case, I might have been better off stopping during August instead of keeping on until early September. Typically, we don’t need to be backing off supplement until late August, so the winter was exceptionally good for growth.

Struggling to get on top of surplus growth
By mid-September we had quality problems starting to loom in some paddocks, a good carry over of silage following the early cessation of supplementary feeding and a large surplus developing on the out block. It was far too cool to be making silage but dry enough for cultivation, so we started to take out paddocks to sow down to a mix of chicory and Winfred forage brassica.

Conditions for this continued to be suitable throughout September, despite the predictions of imminent La Niña conditions. We were still struggling to get on top of surplus growth, so we kept cropping until we had about one-third of the total grazing area under crop. I was a bit unsure whether I’d overdone it, particularly when La Niña arrived in no uncertain terms at the start of October, just after we’d worked up and sown down one of our most flood prone paddocks beside the river.

Waterlogging and delayed growth
Luckily the river stayed in its banks (just), but the wet conditions caused some waterlogging and delayed growth in some of the later sown crop paddocks. The wet weather also played havoc with silage making, not helped when I broke the mower conditioner on a hidden rock about half-way through, causing more delay. We ended up with plenty of silage but not of great quality.

Lower milk production
Milk production through October was down on last year. Partly this was due to our inability to really get on top of surplus grass and keep pasture quality optimal, despite our efforts. I usually find I need to be constantly feeling like we are just about to run short of pasture during spring to get best results. I tried pulling grain feeding back from our already low levels to try and encourage more pasture consumption but that just hurt milk flow without getting the cows over their lethargic, uncooperative, overfed behaviour in the dairy or producing acceptable grazing residuals, so I put it back up.

Spring cell count higher than normal
The other problem was that we are a bit short on cow numbers, 340 to 350 instead of our optimum number of 380. Partly this is due to our efforts to calve more cows in autumn reducing the number of spring calvers and partly due to a nagging dribble of higher than normal losses, probably fire related (such as the pneumonia case whose lungs were black at post-mortem). We also had to cull some of the cows that developed mastitis after the disruptions to milking we had during the fire. Additionally, our cell count has been much higher than normal during spring.

To buy in or not to buy in cows?
To get our numbers back up quickly, we looked at buying some cows, but we have about 100 heifers due to calve in autumn, which will get our numbers back up and render the extra cows surplus. Purchased cows would also be unlikely to perform at their best through the spring as they settle in and there is also the risk of importing disease, so we decided not to go down that path.

Gain and losses with wheat and oats
Having spent most of October struggling to get heavy grass crops dry enough to bale, the sudden change to hot, dry conditions in November turned our last paddock into hay by the time we got there to bale it. We also baled up 20 hectares of oats for hay. The oats matured earlier than the wheat we used last year, and we were lucky the weather turned just in time to allow us to dry it enough for hay.
Weeds in the crop were a problem and we might be better using the remaining wheaten hay from last year for our springers. Twenty hectares was a much more manageable task to bale up than last year’s mammoth 60. The wheat had some advantages over the oats for hay but may not provide as much grazed feed for the heifers after sowing. After our experience last year with fire, we have again stored this hay separately from our other fodder reserves.

Cropping strategy works out
In early November the first of the crop paddocks came into the rotation and immediately boosted milk flow. The cropping strategy has turned out very well in the circumstances, but I wouldn’t plan to do as much area in a more typical season. The ability to get more topping done once fodder conservation finished has also helped increase quality. We have a new tractor on order and after our experience this spring, Chrisanya has convinced me to retain the intended trade-in so she and the herd manager can top more during spring when the rest of our tractors are tied up on the out block with silage.

Going where the shade is
We are due to start drying off next month. Normally we retain the dries on the dairy farm over summer, but we often struggle to find enough shade for them. We really need to plant some more trees! We want to keep the chicory paddocks for the milkers, which will make it harder to find enough shade for the dries. The crop will also reduce the need to chew out paddocks prior to sowing. Luckily, we have plenty of surplus pasture on the out block and plenty of shade, so it looks like the girls are going on a trip for their holiday this summer.

The COVID effect
We have several projects we are hoping to get completed over summer. Some of these have been delayed by the fire and recovery from it, but also by COVID. Being on the border with NSW has been incredibly disruptive to our community, which has spent months arbitrarily chopped in half. During the COVID border closure we needed to have a permit to get our cows in for afternoon milking from the NSW end of the farm. However, this was nothing compared to people trying to replace their houses burnt in the fire, who had trouble accessing the appropriate resources or getting builders to their sites. On the other hand, COVID has had a few advantages, such as the increased amount of information available online. We got good value out of the Dairy Research Symposium and Dairy Australia’s seminars on employment among others.

Progress on infrastructure projects
In terms of projects, we have a new auger system on order to help better utilise our silos but are yet to see it installed. We are also due for a major revamp of the dairy yard, which, after 23 years of use, is currently ‘worse for wear’ with major cracks in the concrete and rusted off posts. As well as repairing these problems, we will move our crush out of the main yard area to a new site beside the dairy. This will make it easier to clean the yard as there will be less clutter in the washing area. It will also allow us to enlarge the main area of the yard to better accommodate the herd as there will only be a narrow area on the exit side to hold drafted cows. The new crush area will include a pit around the hoof trimming crush to reduce bending over when treating lame cows. Also, a much higher roof to allow tractor access in case cows go down in the crush. Loading areas for trucks and tandem trailers and an equipment wash bay are also in the plan.

The irrigation saga continues
We also have the long running saga of the irrigation project. The plan has been to put in up to 25 hectares  of big gun sprinklers. Our mechanic is the local irrigation specialist, which is great for back up but during harvest he has other things on his mind than irrigation.  Consequently,  planning ahead is not always optimal. However, we have been wondering recently whether we are heading in the right direction. The scale of the works is quite extensive for big guns and there are issues with the number of sprinkler heads we can practically run at once. This means the number of shifts to do a complete watering becomes an issue. Based on sound advice given some years ago, I try to avoid spray irrigating if Delta T is over 10 or the steady wind speed is over 10 km/h. Through summer this usually means I start irrigating at sunset and knock off about lunchtime the following day, avoiding the afternoons. So, if I need to do two shifts per day, I would need to do the changeover at about 3:00 am. I am not excited by this prospect.

The diesel versus solar irrigation dilemma
In the longer term, we are also concerned about the concept of diesel-powered spray irrigation. With the foreseeable demise of fossil fuel power, the most obvious alternative is solar, but this dictates irrigating during the time of day when evaporation losses from spray irrigation make it highly inefficient. For us, at $1,000 per kWh for battery storage, it is economically not feasible to store energy on an adequate scale for use at night (e.g. a 50 kW/68hp pump motor running for 10 hours would require battery storage costing about $500,0000).

Windy and dry summer days on the increase
We have also seen last summer that an increasing number of days when wind and dryness are reducing our irrigating window for the day. During the worst days last summer, conditions dictated that evaporation was too high to make it economic to irrigate at all. This was, of course, when the plants most needed a drink. One option we have is to move away from spray irrigation to sub surface drip.

We are a bit wary of this, as we haven’t seen it used for pasture, but think it is worth investigating. The big drawback with sub surface drip we see is the inability to germinate seed after sowing. In our case we already have the ability to run a travelling irrigator over most of the area concerned. So, we have the opportunity to overcome that hurdle. We are due for a discussion with an irrigation specialist shortly but will have to get our skates on if we are going to get anything happening this summer.

In the meantime, we’ll (Chrisanya and I) focus our efforts on upgrading the centre pivot with a second mainline and a new, bigger pump to increase water flow. The motor on the existing pump has clocked up about 20,000 hours, which is impressive, but we’ve probably had the best out of it.

Mitigating risk of long blackouts
On the subject of alternative energy, we have been considering ways to mitigate the risk of long blackouts like those we experienced during the fire. We have acquired some camping type inverter generators of 3kW capacity and had the houses wired so we can run them through the house wiring. We can’t use big stuff like the air conditioner or stove, but it keeps the fridges and freezers going and lets us run the lights and charge phones and laptops. We can use the kettle and the microwave, but not at the same time. At $2,000 to $3,000 a house it’s not a bad start. I investigated more solar panels and a battery, which would be about $20,000 per house and virtually free us from the grid, but Chrisanya has been a bit sceptical. It would substantially reduce or eliminate our mains electricity cost which would mitigate the capital expense. After several long power disruptions recently, she seems to have become more receptive to the idea.

Highest milking herd numbers ever
We have just over 300 cows due to calve in March/April, which will be our highest number ever. Joining went well despite an urgent scramble to locate some replacement Jersey bulls after two broke down just after they started work. Mopping up of the cows was also not helped when I injured the hand I put in the cow while inseminating. We still achieved conception rates just under 50 per cent, but I was pretty happy to get to the end of joining.

Calf shedding options
We are left with a dilemma, however. The last batch of dairy bred steers we sold cleared $2,000/head and the work we’ve done on the beef block has produced a massive increase in feed production. We really want to rear the bull calves for steers this coming autumn, but we only have calf shedding enough for the heifers. We have experienced the trauma of sick and dead calves caused by overloading our calf rearing system, and don’t want to go down that path again. Getting a second shed built in time is unlikely so we are looking at temporary or portable shelters.

Success with use of contract sowers
Last year we had great success using a contractor for a lot of our sowing. We’ll be trying to work with them again next year, so long as we can get them in a timely fashion. They were quite popular last year. If not, we’ll just have to do it ourselves.

More truck power
With extra labour on board, we bought another truck to speed up carting during silage making. The second truck gives us the option to tie one up with a grouper to speed up sowing without impacting silage carting from the out-block. Purchasing the truck turned into an adventure in itself. We bought it in Melbourne in the lull before the second wave of COVID hit and ended up having to have it retrieved out of the metro lockdown area by a drop deck.

Travellling OK
Even though there’s the possibility that next year’s opening price may be much lower than we are getting currently, things are travelling OK. There are decent margins to be made and a good reserve of fodder behind us. Most of the damage from the fire is fixed. The year 2020 hasn’t been the easiest one. Hopefully next year is an improvement!

AgVic Talk podcast episode with Craig Dwyer
Logo of Agriculture Victoria's Podcast Series known as Ag Talk

Agriculture Victoria's new podcast series AgVic talk delivers knowledge and information in a format that suits the way farmers and agricultural professionals work and live today. 

Each episode covers contemporary problems and solutions including bushfire recovery, drought and dry seasonal conditions, weather and climate, as well as some fantastic inspiring stories from young farmers.

To date 10 episodes have been produced.  Episode 5 features Milking the Weather case study farmer Craig Dwyer. In this 12 minute podcast Craig talks about balancing wet winters and dairy farming. Have have a listen to AgVic Talk.

Managing the summer ahead
David Shambrook, Agriculture Victoria Dairy Services, Leongatha


  • The Bureau of Meteorology forecast for summer, issued on the 26 November 2020, suggests that most of Victoria is likely to have above average rainfall. The day and night temperatures are likely to be warmer than average.
  • The ENSO outlook is still consistent with La Niña. It is predicted that La Niña will peak around December to January and persist until at least the end of February 2021. With the prediction of higher than average rainfall, this may reduce chances of large bushfires over summer to autumn.
  • For much of the state, rainfall was either average or slightly below for spring with November being the driest month. There were exceptions with South West Victoria receiving above average rainfall, most of this came in the last six weeks. Currently, many areas have drier soil profiles compared with the start of spring, providing ideal growing conditions going into summer. The drier soil profiles have seen pasture growth take off and allowed for late silage and early hay to be made. Any pugging damage to pastures should now have been repaired or are being used for summer cropping.  
  • Grain availability is still good and the prospect of a good harvest, that has been delayed by rain, sees prices remain around $100 per tonne (lower than this time last year). Prices have remained stable and availability of good quality fodder has improved as new season hay comes onto the market. However, lucerne hay remains the highest priced of high protein type hays. Get a feed test done if at all suspicious about the affect rain may have had on the quality of any grain or fodder you buy this season.
  • Some areas in Gippsland and parts of the South West had to delay their silage making until recent weeks when soils had dried sufficiently and enabled the excess pasture growth to be harvested for silage. Other areas have already commenced hay making.
  • Gippsland irrigators had a good start to the irrigation season with good rain in October, combined with Lake Glenmaggie being at 93 per cent capacity, reducing the need to irrigate up until the last few weeks. The prospect of rainfall and increased inflows could still see Lake Glenmaggie spill again before the 15 December 2020.
  • All Northern Victorian irrigation storages are at levels higher than last year (2019–2020). The prediction of above average summer rain will hopefully improve the situation and may reduce some irrigation requirements.
  • Soil moisture profiles are drier than at the start of spring which will help reduce the prospects of major flooding events if predicted above average rainfall eventuates over December 2020 to February 2021.
  • The solid milk price together with favourable fodder conservation conditions experienced in spring should see reduced demand for purchased feeds and milk production continue to be above that of last year.

An above average 2020–21 summer favoured

The current forecast favours good summer pasture and crop production with higher than normal summer soil moisture availability, predicted above average rainfall, and warmer days and nights. However, in those areas where soils are drier than desired now, as in the area east of Yarram, below average rainfall and warmer temperatures could see a long dry summer. 

Pasture and crops
From the middle of spring, soil moisture levels have dried enough to allow plenty of opportunity to conserve excess pasture and to prepare for summer fodder crops. However, the drier than average November has seen moisture levels drop to more normal levels for the start of summer. If this dry trend continues then it could see paddocks of dry feed by mid-summer. The BOM forecast of a wetter than average summer may help to keep pasture green and growing, providing opportunity to continue applying some nitrogen fertiliser.

Depending on how much rain falls in December, pastures may provide the bulk of the feed well into summer and reduce the need to start feeding silage or good quality hay. Urea is still the cheapest source of nitrogen at around $500 per tonne (ex-GST and freight) or $1.09 per kg N.

However, you will need to be watchful that it is only used to boost paddocks that have adequate soil moisture and good ground cover for the best results and to avoid losses. Another option is to use Green Urea, which is around $50 per tonne dearer – it contains a urease inhibitor to help reduce ammonia losses under warmer conditions.

The expected early summer responses from nitrogen range from 10 to 15 kg DM per kg N. This produces pasture costing around nine cents for every additional kilogram of dry matter grown. Even allowing for wastage from grazing, it is still very competitive when compared to buying in extra fodder or grain. Monitor the weather forecasts to make sure there is enough rain to wash the fertiliser in but not wash it away (such as a storm), and that temperatures are suitable to encourage uptake of nitrogen or other fertilisers that may be applied. The predicted warmer day and night-time temperatures through summer need to be monitored so that any hot periods are avoided when looking at nitrogen applications.

Don’t forget that your dairy effluent is a good source of nitrogen and summer is a good time to irrigate this out onto pasture or crops. If rainfall is higher over summer, additional effluent will be generated and emptied from ponds before the winter storage months.

Responses to any applied nitrogen is dependent on moisture, temperature, timing of application in relation to grazing and the amount of existing pasture. A tool on the Victorian Resources Online website has been produced to assist with the economics of the responses you may get.Click here to find out more.  

In areas where the soil moisture is lower than ideal, the prospect of above average rain, if it comes early in summer, may help alleviate the need to feed fodder supplements for a little longer. If it doesn’t arrive, then longer grazing rotations with increased levels of supplement will need to be implemented.

Fodder and grain
Wheat is selling for around $290 per tonne, depending on locality and grade. However, the continued lower price of barley, at around $215 to $245 per tonne, makes it more economic to use to assist filling the feed gaps. Barley grain contains about 10 per cent moisture so $230 per tonne fresh weight is about $256 per tonne of dry matter. This grain is about 12.0 MJ ME of energy or 2.1 c/MJ ME. With average quality silage being about 10.5 MJ ME of energy or valued at around 2.7 c/MJ ME, barley is still a good proposition to fill the energy feed gap. If thinking of changing the type of grain fed based on availability or price, remember to check the calibration of your feeders to ensure cows are getting the desired amount of grain.

It has been a good spring for making silage and hay, but if you don’t think that the quality of your conserved fodder is suitable for milking cows, then some good quality fodder, such as lucerne hay, may need to be bought in. At around $550 per tonne it is still a very expensive option. Vetch hay with a similar protein content to Lucerne would be more economic to feed.

Cereal or grass hays are good lower protein options at around $150 to $330 per tonne, depending on source, quality and location. Prices may ease further once the hay season is finished and if good rains continue to fall. Remember to use feed testing, if required, to determine the quality of these feed sources.

Keep track of grain and hay prices by referring to the Dairy Australia regular grain and hay reports found here

There are some things worth highlighting:

  • Do the numbers for your situation on a ‘feed consumed’ basis. Complete or update your feed budget to know what you may still need to get through from early summer to the other side of next winter.
  • How much feed have you got on hand now after this fodder season and can it be carried through to next winter? Will you need to fill a feed gap with grain or fodder or use nitrogen?  What is the wastage for each option and the costs involved?
  • Have you enough feed reserves to cover the summer feed gap, even though summer is predicted to be wetter than average? Does extra feed need to be purchased?

Monitor stock health
The prediction of above average rainfall and warmer temperatures over the summer may be beneficial to keeping pastures green and growing, but it could have impacts on the health of the dairy herd. Hot humid conditions can cause heat stress for dairy cows, so be prepared for the forecast hot days by providing shelter or areas on the farm where cows can be kept cool at those times with good access to water. Dairy Australia have information on this - click this link.

The other stock health issue to be watchful for in these weather conditions is the development of a disease called facial eczema, particularly in areas where it has been known to occur in other years e.g. Gippsland. A spore monitoring service is available to help avoid grazing pastures with high spore counts that may cause facial eczema, resulting in lost productivity and possible ongoing lifetime production impacts on cows. Information on the monitoring and prevention of this disease can be found here.

Cash flow an issue?
The outlook for summer looks good but this could be tempered if there are storms and flash flooding causing damage that needs repairing. It is important that expected cash surpluses generated this year be put to good use. Decisions will need to be made around what to spend on grain, fodder, fertiliser and water (if irrigating) to generate milk production in each situation. There may already have been cash outlays for repairing pug damaged pasture or plans to re-sow in the coming autumn that require cash expenditure. Those recovering from fire and drought, with higher debt levels, will still be looking to make the most of the better seasonal outlook to repay some of the debt.

Continued water inflows throughout spring have seen an increase in storage levels in the Northern Victoria systems. This has enabled the Goulburn to currently have an allocation of 100 per cent high reliability shares and the Murray system an 83 per cent high reliability. The Macalister system has 100 per cent high reliability allocated with a similar level of soil moisture present.  

The prediction of better than average rainfall over summer should help reduce the number of irrigations required.  However, the weather will need to be monitored as windy hot dry days can increase evapotranspiration rates and dry out soils very quickly and may reduce the irrigation interval. Availability of water for irrigation in Northern Victoria can be viewed online by referring to the link below. This site is maintained by Goulburn Murray Water in accordance with Victorian water sharing rules - click this link. In southern Victoria, Southern Rural Water manages a site where relevant irrigation information can be found - click here.

Stock and dairy shed water supply for non-irrigated farms
Going into summer, most dryland farm water storages are either at or near full. With the expectation of warmer than average days it will be important that there is enough water available for stock and for the dairy if dams are the main source for clean up activities. Any rain that does come throughout summer will be a bonus, but it may be worth doing an audit now to determine if you have the water you need to get through to winter.

Agriculture Victoria has a new Summer Water Calculator tool available to keep check on water levels in your dams and tanks and to estimate how long water for stock will last. You can access this calculator on the Agriculture Victoria website using this link

Now is the time to check your dams for any possible leaks. Leaks are easy to spot if some areas in the paddock remain green when the rest seems to be dry. Repairs can be carried out toward the end of summer.

Seasonal soil moisture condition assessment
Spring review and summer update 2020–21 for Victorian dairying areas
David Shambrook and Michele Jolliffe, Dairy Extensions Officers, Agriculture Victoria

Agriculture Victoria has several soil moisture probes on a range of soil and pasture types installed across Victoria on dryland sites.

These probes greatly assist with making early management decisions and have been used in the cropping industry for some time.

A monthly analysis of these sites is produced by Agriculture Victoria as an e-newsletter accessible here. Also a new Soil Moisture Monitoring Dashboard can be found here.  

In spring 2017, three monitoring sites on Victorian dryland dairy farms were commissioned.

These are located at Jancourt in South West Victoria Longwarry in West Gippsland and Jack River near Yarram in South Gippsland.


Solar powered soil moisture monitoring site at Yarram Victoria.

All installed probes are used to measure the soil moisture. They are best described as capacitance type probes and are 80 centimetres long with eight internal sensors to provide soil water content values and temperature every 10 centimetres. Sensors at monitoring sites go through a field calibration process to understand how much water the soil can hold.

Each site shows the soil water holding capacity percentage at any point of the year so that the season can be analysed to assist with informed strategic decisions.

Four more moisture monitoring sites on dryland dairying properties will be installed soon. Two will be in South West Victoria and two in South Gippsland. Soil moisture information on these four new dairying sites will be provided in the next Milking the Weather newsletter in early March 2021.

Seasonal outlooks of soil moisture data provide some guidance on the length of the season, pasture production, and early indications of future pasture management.

Different soil types at each site mean they cannot be directly compared with other sites and are best assessed individually. Together, the sites are useful in showing total soil moisture levels from estimated plant available water and relative movement/use of moisture down the profile for various soil types and pasture species.

In this update of soil moisture conditions, we will look at key recent soil moisture level observations from spring 2020, as well as relevant future insights for this summer for two of the three dryland dairy sites (Longwarry is currently offline and being repaired). The two individual dryland dairying sites currently operating are a perennial pasture paddock at Jancourt, South West Victoria and a prairie grass paddock at Yarram, South Gippsland.

Jancourt perennial pasture, South West Victoria

The season has continued to produce some excellent pasture growth with good silage yields and, in many places, excellent quality. This has been due to the ability to harvest early as the paddocks were not as wet as they often can be in early spring. Some big rainfall events in late September and early October resulted in soils reaching saturation point again and putting a halt to harvest, as many paddocks became too wet to traffic with machinery.

Jancourt pasture soil moisture level speedo
Summed moisture graph for Jancourt perennial pasture

Good pasture growth continued to be observed and by mid-October, many farms had been able to recommence harvest activities. Soil moisture levels are beginning to drop as we head into summer due to the combination of good pasture growth and warmer and windier days. For details on the Jancourt perennial pasture site click here.

Jancourt soil moisture probe readings for every ten centimetres to a depth of 80 cm.
Speedo graph showing current moisture for Yarram Prairie grass site.

Yarram prairie grass, South Gippsland

At this Yarram moisture probe site, which is around 10 kilometres west of the Yarram township, rainfall in the early part of spring was just enough to maintain the soil moisture profiles to around 50 per cent full. Good falls in October lifted this to around 80 per cent before the drier November conditions caused it to drop back to around 35 per cent.

Pasture growth over this time has been good with many dairy farmers in the area able to make some early silage and now looking towards hay making. Soil moisture levels are currently similar to the same time last year (2019).

Yarram prairie individual sensors

The soil is a little on the dry side, however, there is still a good level of moisture at depth, which with the prospect of a wetter than average summer, should see the deeper-rooted prairie grass continue to grow. The ryegrass probe area, although not currently working, is likely to have a little more moisture at depth than the prairie grass and also should respond well to any rainfall over summer. For details on the Yarram prairie grass site click here.

Summed soil moisture chart for Yarram Prairie grass site.
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