Every farm business has a different drought plan and all have their inherent risks. But as former Department of Primary Industries and now central tablelands senior Local Land Services livestock officer Brett Littler commonly tells farmers “a plan, even if regularly adjusted, is far better than no plan and gives you a rational way forward if the drought continues”.
Our central west Purlewaugh property drought plan, a predominately beef fattening business with 20 percent of the farm sown to dual purpose crops, includes a number of strategies.
It is by no means a recommended plan but is an example of one to cope with unexpected and sometimes deepening droughts.
Our strategy includes a mixture of crops and pasture types to as quickly as possible provide feed when the season breaks, stored hay from good seasons, maximising dry paddock feed quality, regular feed availability assessment, purchase cotton seed and destock at more or less planned times as the drought progresses.
When a good break occurs and we can estimate feed availability we will restock as rapidly as is feasible.
Maximising probability of establishing dual purpose winter crops includes fallow moisture storage rather than use that water for summer grazing (fallow weeds), sowing earlier than generally appreciated as normal, sow on lighter country (less rainfall for establishment) and use a contractor with appropriate sowing gear to achieve establishment on minimal rainfall.
As has occurred this year, while crops don’t provide instant feed after follow up rain, they do provide reasonably quick feed.
Thirty five percent of our property comprises tropical grasses that will provide feed, given rain, from mid-September onwards. In warmer areas feed gets away faster.
In the past dry spring, summer and early autumn, rainfall wise, tropical grasses provided good feed from occasional rain events in October, January and early March.
Winter annuals will be slow to get away from a late break but can still provide late winter spring feed.
Dry feed quality into the drought has been good where soil deficiencies have been corrected as part of pasture management. Where carryover feed has been available commonly stock performance has been good because there has been little degradation.
Supplementary feeding has a number of roles with one to help ration out paddock feed and to help maintain groundcover.
Good groundcover is vital for capturing rain when it does occur and to help crops and pastures recover as fast as is possible.
Being able to roughly assess available paddock feed, allowing for reasonable ground cover, is I feel is a vital asset.
Knowing how much paddock feed is available helps enormously in making decisions like what level to supplement feed at and when to plan stock sell offs. We have downsized 50 percent, based on feed budgeting estimates.
Like many farmers I feel we were a bit late making some decisions like cotton seed purchase and sell-off scheduling.
Fortunately this drought livestock sell-off prices have been good, especially if sold at good condition.
Weather forecasts, including three months, 14 days, eight day and four days, have been of little help with coping with the drought. At one stage we bought young steers based on strong short and medium term forecasts that resulted in next to no rain.
A plan I feel lowers stress as it gives us a way forward other than just “hoping for rain”.
Sometime we will sell-off and the drought will break soon afterwards and one might say “we should have waited a bit longer”.
But if we didn’t sell-off and the drought goes on for months, worry and costs increase with probably reduced returns.