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Farming through a triple-dip La Niña

· Environment,Climate

Are we in for a triple-dip La Niña?

That's the question Dr Mike McPhaden, a US scientist, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), came to discuss with Australian meterologists, climate scientists and ocean experts recently.

Triple-dip La Niñas are rare events, with the most recent three-peat observed from 1998 to 2000 and, prior to that, in 1973 through to 1975. For Australia, La Niña means more rain, more flooding, cooler weather; for western USA, it triggers more wildfires, water shortages and drought.

Will we see La Niña make her third appearance this (southern hemisphere) summer? Some say "yes"; others say "too soon to tell". What we do know is that cooler, wetter weather will continue across eastern Australia, lasting well into spring, according to the Bureau of Meterology (BoM), even if the third La Niña summer doesn't eventuate.

[Anyone interested in the impact of La Niña for Australia? Take a look at the BoM's excellent infographic available here, and a short video explanation here.]

Keeping tabs on what BoM and experts, like Dr McPhaden, say about triple-dip La Niñas is more than just curiosity for us. Farming through back-to-back La Niñas, nevermind a triple-dip one, is not something we're looking forward to. But ignoring the science, and operating on hope, isn't a luxury we have.

And here is why:

Flood means mud

After years of drought and a summer of devastating bushfires, rain's arrival on our dry, dusty farmland in early 2020 was a huge relief. Starting in February 2020, good rains fell across our dessicated patch of coast, helping extinguish the persistent bushfires across the district.

With the rains, grass sprouted, some tree leaves returned, as did a few blossoms, but we noticed fewer birds, a huge reduction in insect numbers, fewer reptiles, almost no small mammals and only a handful of marsupials on the farm. (Unsurprisingly, this was a direct consequence of billions of fauna being incinerated or harmed in bushfires burning across Australia in 2019-2020.)

Floods hit the farms several times in 2020 and 2021, as we've described in our blog here and also here. And to no-one's surprise, floods returned in 2022.

More than 170 cms of rain has fallen on Narrawilly in four months. 2022's floods on Narrawilly and Croobyar have had significant consequences for the business, our team members, the landscape and environment, and our animals.

Image 1: Rob versus mud (or what remains of one of the farm's laneways)

Without question, mud has had a bigger, more negative impact on Narrawilly and Croobyar farms, and Rob's business, than Black Summer's bushfires. (Recall: there were four major fires on Narrawilly between 31 January 2019 and February 2020.)

No, we're not talking about the odd mud-puddle or two, or the "happy as a pig in em-you-dee" praised by The Road Hammers. We're talking about mud in intensities never seen by Rob or the older farmers on neighbouring farms in our district.

A bunyip on the farm

Mud has been an invader, a demon, an enemy. Where words fail, images can tell part of the story.

Image 2: Paddocks turn to mud and mush

In late summer and autumn of 2022, mud swamped the farm, swallowing laneways and paddocks, and pulling animals, people, quad bikes, utes and even huge John Deere tractors into its boggy depths.

Image 3: Where quads and hooves fear to go

For weeks, neither the herd nor the team (on foot or quad) could access the grassy paddocks on Narrawilly's hill country: it was impossible to walk or wade or drive through half-a-metre or more of mud.

Now consider it from a cow's perspective. Try being a cow in mud: coordinate all four limbs and almost 600kgs on your skeleton as you make your way through udder-high mud. It's not possible.

At times, when the rain was at its heaviest and the mud at its most dangerous, we wondered if a bunyip had come to live on the farm. Bunyip is a mythical mud-dwelling creature, hungry and cruel, eager to snag a person or animal by the leg, or so the myth goes. A bunyip can easily pull all one-thousand kilograms of a bull's muscled flesh into its swampy lair.

Image 4: Some of the farm's giants, like this enormous tree in a hilly paddock, were no match for the wind after weeks of rain

On what seemed like a daily basis, tractors were needed to pull quads, cars, utes and cows out the mud. And when the tractors were done extracting trapped vehicles, they were collecting flood debris, downed branches and entire trees blown over during 2 weeks of wild, windy weather.

Image 5: The end of a giant

Bunyip country, indeed.

Surviving mud as a dairy cow

Prolonged exposure to mud is bad for a dairy cow.

Teat functioning and teat health are impacted negatively when a cow is forced to stand or lay in mud for days on end. Mastitis in a dairy cow is painful, expensive to treat, and milk from a mastitic udder cannot be consumed by humans. If a cow's untreated mastitis is acute and clinical, her severe teat infection has all the associated symptoms of fever, pus and pain, and can even be fatal. No dairy farmer wants that to happen to a cow.

A dairy cow's hooves also don't stand up well against prolonged exposure to mud and wet. Ulcers, "soft feet", abcesses, even lameness, are some of the consequences of continuous exposure to mud. A cow with "soft, sore feet" won't or can't walk. It's a terrible sight to witness for the people whose job it is to care for dairy cows.

A battle against mud

Rob made two decisions, in late March 2022, when it became clear that we would lose the battle against back-to-back La Niñas and the resulting pervasive mud on Narrawilly and Croobyar farms.

Image 6: One of the creeks in flood and some internal farm fencing about to be washed away

First, for the sake of the animals' health, both farms dropped from two milkings per day to one. The farms' single-milking schedule ran for nearly 6 weeks. With a single milking a day, the herd were walked to the dairy only in the mornings, and given 24 hours for their bodies to recover before their next milking. The financial consequences of this decision were enormous: milk production volumes fell to a quarter of what they typically were and, with that, so did the farm's milk cheque. Rob chose his animals' wellbeing over profit. Decisiveness saved the farm and business. This difficult decision was the right one: three months later, the herd is healthier and happier than ever.

Image 7: Close-up of a recycled conveyor-belt from Port Kembla

Second, to reduce the herd's exposure to mud, Rob purchased kilometres of recycled conveyor-belt and more than 3,000 tonnes of coal-wash from Port Kembla to stabilise the laneways on the farms.

Image 8: Rolls of conveyor-belt wait to be unrolled on the muddy laneways at Croobyar farm

Using these recycled materials on the farms' laneways meant the animals' hooves and teats would be protected from worsening mud and persistent wet.

Image 9: Coal-wash is used to create a feedpad at Narrawilly

Laying down coal-wash at Narrawilly created a dry, flat feedpad, high on the hill, near the dairy plant. With a drier, flat surface underfoot, our tractors were able to bring in metal feed-rings, placing them across the feedpad. Once done, the team could then hand-feed the milking herd whenever the farm paddocks were inaccessible or full of mud-traps.

Image 10: The feedpad at Narrawilly farm

Every day, and continuing through June, our team brings in fodder mix and hay for the milking herd to eat. As a pasture-based, free-range, grazing farm, this isn't our default mode. But in times of crisis, remedial action is necessary. The vets and scientists (who advise us on the ideal feed mix for the milking herd) kept tabs on what is fed to the herd to ensure that their overall condition remains at the best possible levels.

Narrawilly's singular advantage as a dairy farm facing back-to-back La Niñas is its hills. A farm on a hill is not immune to mud, but hills help keep the worst of the wet away. Topography is everything. Our dairy farming friends and colleagues in Nowra and the Southern Highlands have struggled with mud, while Northern Rivers farmers have had herds and farms washed away entirely. We know they are still dealing with devastating challenges. We are aware, too, that mental health is the most under-reported consequences of dairy farming through a triple-dip La Niña.

The mental health consequences of climate breakdown

Psychologically, mud is cruel - for animals and humans. Unrelenting rain falling for four months, (and which we measured at more than 1.7 metres on our farm since 23 February 2022), producing incredible amounts of mud, drains energy, motivation, optimism and erodes physical health. Cloudbursts of rain, especially at night, trigger anxiety. Waking to yet more flooding, on top of already saturated earth, drags you down into despair. Working in wet, cold, muddy conditions sucks both warmth and immunity from the body. Throw into the mix Covid-19, plus all the usual pressures of living in the country, and it's not fun working in mud, every day, without the power to bring rain or mud to an end.

Small step recovery

Jodie McClaren and Steve Jeske have kept Narrawilly going forward these past four months. They went above and beyond duty, steering the farm through many challenges - including during the weeks that Rob was recovering from injury after a hit-and-run accident in Milton, then Covid-19, followed by a severe kidney infection that kept him in hospital for several days. Recovery, of people, farm and animals, won't happen overnight.

Image 11: The milking herd heads up the hill for the afternoon milking

As we wait for the climate boffins to determine if there will be a triple-dip La Niña, Rob and the team are repairing the damage caused across the farms by the flood and mud, while also preparing for a wet spring. It's a busy winter, this year.

 

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