WHILE many parts of Gippsland appear green, the large number of trucks carrying hay and grain on local roads is an indication of the tough situation facing farmers.
A lack of autumn rain has left hay sheds and silage pits empty, forcing farmers to purchase hay and other feeds at premium prices.
The ongoing drought north of the Murray has seen demand for hay skyrocket in recent months, with prices moving north along with the fodder trucks.
GippsDairy regional manager Allan Cameron said the combination of low fodder reserves and high feed and grain prices has put pressure on dairy farmers already feeling the squeeze after recent seasons.
“There’s no doubt many farmers – including dairy farmers – are doing it very hard at the moment.
“East Gippsland has had record low rainfalls during 2018, leaving paddocks bare and dams at dangerously low levels,” he said.
“While some parts of Gippsland are faring better and are even wet, there is still a lack of subsoil moisture across most of Gippsland, with the prospect of a poorer than average spring coming up.”
The Bureau of Meteorology has predicted a 50 per cent chance of lower than average rainfall and higher than average temperatures in south eastern Australia.
Gippsland farm consultant John Gallienne said even the areas that are currently wet are bracing for a disappointing late spring growing season.
Most farmers are now well advanced with assessing stock on their farms, reducing numbers of cows and, in many cases, surplus young stock.
“The worst affected area is East Gippsland, but there’s also dry country on and around the Macalister Irrigation District and in the last month it’s been particularly noticeable how dry it has become as far west as Drouin and Neerim South,” he said.
“Wilting pastures are becoming more evident.
“It’s dry around Yarram and now moving west towards Welshpool and Toora. In the Koo Wee Rup swamp district and down to Phillip Island, farms are also experiencing extreme moisture stress.
“Because it’s now likely to be drier in the latter part of spring, production in the current wetter areas will also be reduced, an overall shortage of silage and hay in the region for feeding later this year and into next year.”
Hay prices in Gippsland rose last week and now range from $340-360/t (cereal), $400-500/t (Lucerne), $180-250/t (straw) and $250-300/t (pasture).
Farmers in East Gippsland are paying transport premiums on top of those prices.
“The prospect of getting hay coming in from other parts of Victoria is reducing because of dry conditions in those areas,” Mr Gallienne said.
“Unfortunately, there is going to be an increased demand for grain, but grain crops are struggling too, barley production is lower and wheat, where available, will be at a higher price than this year.”
Mr Gallienne urged farmers to reassess how they are approaching spring, with soil temperatures higher than normal, meaning growth can be achieved earlier than usual.
“It’s now time to immediately kick-start spring growth across the farms if you haven’t already,” he said.
“I’ve been measuring soil temperatures from Orbost to Wonthaggi and they have all been at 10 degrees Celsius which is well above normal for this time of year – spring is here now.
“Where there is still adequate moisture for nitrogen response – even at low response levels – it is still cost effective to apply N to pastures rather than buying in feed at high prices. Where there are known moderate or low soil potassium levels add K to the nitrogen.
“At this stage the opportunity to successfully grow summer fodder crops to fill a feed gap is reducing unless there is water to irrigate them.”
Gippsland dairy farmers are being urged to access resources available through GippsDairy and Dairy Australia as they plan their strategy for the next few months.
“Knowing your situation, especially with finances and feed, and planning for all eventualities will help farmers cope with tougher than average seasons,” Mr Cameron said.
“With the shortage of supply and corresponding higher feed prices, I’d encourage every farmer to make the most of their spring harvest, whatever that might bring.
“I’d also urge farmers to speak to their own trusted advisors as well as utilising the resources available through the Dairy Australia website (www.dairyaustralia.com.au) where there is information on anything from silage production to feed budgeting to the latest hay and grain reports.”