Hay and livestock help mitigate frost damage in southern Vic Mallee
An already strong focus on both the domestic and export hay market along with a recently established lamb feedlot helped one Victorian southern Mallee farming family to insulate itself from the devastating frosts in 2014.
The Cook family farms west of Hopetoun, Victoria, cropping 3200 hectares made up of 70 per cent cereals - wheat and barley - and 30 per cent to vetch and lentils, with some canola also in the mix.
Between 20pc and 25pc of the cereal program is sown to oaten hay, mostly for export markets, and some land is set aside for vetch hay for the domestic market.
The Cooks describe their hay program as “another tool in the shed”, which helps to spread risk from an entirely grain-focussed operation.
The Cooks, including Simon and his father Ross, buy in about 3000 crossbred lambs annually to graze stubbles and finish in their own feedlot, adding diversity to their enterprise.
With an ideal wet and mild start from April to June before things went “pear-shaped” with extreme frosts in August, Simon looks back on 2014 and laments what could have been but says he would not change his management practices.
“Even with the frost risk there, early-sown crops in April and May are out-yielding crops sown later,” Simon said. “We’ll still have the seeder ready to go by the start of April.
“Sowing as early as we do, we’ve got to expect a little bit of frost.”
But the severity of the 2014 frosts is something that has been seldom seen in the southern Mallee, according to Simon. As one of the district’s young farmers, it is a view he has formed from conversations with his father and other older farmers in the district.
“In the first week of August we got absolutely smacked by frost,” Simon said. “It got down to minus-four degrees Celsius and stayed under zero for so long in the morning. Even with hindsight we wouldn’t change our management strategies. We’re never going to completely avoid frost and by all reports, the 2014 frosts were out of the box in terms of severity.”
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, temperatures for Hopetoun got down to -4.5°C in August with sub-zero temperatures recorded for four days in a row from August 2 to 5.
From August 4 to 31, the district recorded no rain. This came after Hopetoun recorded 17.2 millimetres in July and 19.6mm in June.
The Cook’s farm is in a low-lying area with sand hills which drain into red loams and limestone. The loam and limestone soil types were worst affected by the frost due to their low-lying topography.
“Wherever there was a low-lying area, the frost drained in,” Simon said. “When the plants are already moisture stressed, frost always does more damage.”
The Cook’s cereals were between booting and head emergence, resulting in stem frost, while the canola had just finished flowering.
Simon had a unique method in determining what frosted crops would and would not be cut for hay.
“It was just a matter of riding around and looking at low-lying areas to determine what would be our best option,” he said.
Simon would cut a one square metre patch from a crop that looked frost-damaged and likely to return a low grain yield, put it in a bag, take it back to the house and put it in the microwave to dry out the cuttings. Then, after weighing the dried matter, he would calculate the dry matter yield per hectare.
“This gives me a good idea of the hay cut I’m going to get,” Simon said. “By the time I weigh up my options on whether to cut for hay or harvest, I figure that cutting for hay isn’t a great expense for us because we’ve already got the equipment.
“Hay is definitely an advantage to us – by the time it’s all cut, raked, baled and stored, it’s all pretty easy – but we would still rather grow grain.”
Besides the vetch and oats which would normally be cut for hay, frosted wheat, barley and even canola were mowed.
“Anywhere there was low-lying ground I cut for hay,” he said. “It was the first time we had cut canola for hay.
“We had a 70ha paddock of canola which was badly frosted and only ended up getting 140 bales off it, but we had it tested and it came back okay for protein and metabolisable energy.
“When it came time to harvest the grain I was looking at the yield monitor on the header and it would go from almost nothing on the low-lying ground where I had missed cutting any bad patches for hay and then up to 2.5 tonnes a hectare on the sand hills.”
That vindicated Simon’s decision to cut as much hay as he did, which ended up totalling about 30pc of the program.
“By cutting hay we’re getting something back rather than nothing,” he said. “The frost damage was bad enough that I knew there wasn’t going to be any grain yield there.
Frost even caused leaf-burn in some of his oats and they failed to run up to head, meaning they were cut earlier than is ideal for oaten hay. Despite this, much of the Cook’s oaten hay still made export grade.
In fact, the Cooks were quite successful with their entire hay cut in terms of prices and demand.
“When we were cutting, people were screaming out for hay because of the dry conditions,” Simon said. “Basically all our hay was sold by January with only about 100 tonnes of wheaten and barley hay left.”
With lamb prices being particularly solid over the last 12 months, the lamb feedlot has also been a handy outlet for the hay cut from frost-damaged crops, with any excess going there.
The grain harvest came back just under average at 1.9t/ha for both wheat and barley. However, Simon says that figure could have been a lot worse had he not made the decision to cut frosted crops for hay.
Overall, he says, the most important part about farming in a changing climate which does include severe frosts is to be flexible and prepared.
“It’s important to have equipment ready on-time and not take any short-cuts,” Simon said. “Dry years in particular are always going to happen. If we’re able to plan for the dry years and put some money away, hopefully it won’t make the blow so hard.”
Simon Cook, firstname.lastname@example.org
GRDC Project Code UA00136, CSP00180, YOU00002, CSP00143, DAW00234, DAW00241, UWA169, UMU0045, UQ00071, CMA00002
Region South, North