A fierce desire to grow their equity, and the unpredictability of the Bega seasons, has seen Tom and Gemma Otton take up a share farming role with Peter and Jeanette Clark at Kongwak.
When Brian went on the farm in 1997, ryegrass was the prominent crop with some chicory for variety.
Today, ryegrass plugs holes rather than being the dominant species and they grow a “fruit salad” of varieties to ensure year-round green feed.
“What we’re growing on the ground is totally different to 20 years ago,” Karrinjeet said.
Solar panels, a 50% bigger effluent pond and more use of recycled water add to the farm’s recognition that the times are a-changing.
The couple say they’ve had to make the changes to keep pace with the changing conditions and they expect to keep evolving.
Karrinjeet said warmer soils, stronger winds, more “bad” seasons and longer summers had necessitated changes.
“Absolutely we’ve noticed that it’s different. It used to be you’d get one bad season occasionally, now the bad seasons outnumber the good seasons,” she said.
“We’ll have to continue adapting; we’re going to be running to keep up with it for a long time.”
The farm has one large “fruit salad” paddock with chicory, clovers, lucerne, ryegrass, fescue, phalaris, cocksfoot, plantain.
“There’s always something growing in this paddock, if one species isn’t working, another will,” Karrinjeet said.
Other paddocks have a double-mix of phalaris and cocksfoot or summer-active lucerne and winter-active plantain, plus tall fescue with chicory.
The new mix of crops started about four years ago when Karrinjeet and Brian noticed erosion between plants and changes to how things were growing.
“Ryegrass stops growing when it gets too hot, so for five months of the year we don’t get much value out of it,” Karrinjeet said.
“We get a lot of wind here. What we think is happening, and it’s backed up by climate science, is that as the temperature of the earth is warming, the winds are getting stronger and we’re finding because summers are longer, drier and hotter, rather than just going dormant over summer a significant amount of ryegrass is dying.
“We have beautiful free-draining hills so we don’t have issue with mud and access but the best quality soil is most prone to erosion.”
They have turned to deeper-rooting and summer active species and aim to have year-round cover for their soil.
Some of the new seed varieties are more expensive than ryegrass and harder to establish which means there has been some trial and error along the way, but the results have been pleasing.
“All year our cows have green feed,” Karrinjeet said. “That’s what we want. If you’re feeding more green there’s less methane produced by the cow.”
They aimed for crops with bumper harvests, with brought-in feed limited to lucerne for the calving season and minimal silage.
“Our main milking herd has not had a single thing fed out to it this season – no hay, no silage,” Karrinjeet said.
“We deliberately don’t make a huge amount of silage. We had a red wheat crop we grazed three times for really good winter feed and then closed it up for silage but in general we try to keep silage to a minimum which saves on harvesting costs, on plastic, diesel and man hours feeding it out.”
The farm has an irrigation licence but only uses it in an emergency. “We don’t want to become dependent on it because it is expensive environmentally and it’s costly to run and it takes time and energy,” she added.
Brian said the emphasis was on growing feed that best suits the cows and the land.
“Instead of buying in a whole lot of energy and protein we can actually grow it by changing our crops and changing our system,” he said. “We won’t always get it right but if we try something and it works then we’ll keep going with it.”
“We’ve put in crops to feed rather than trying to conserve feed to carry through, which has reduced costs and the type of feed we’re growing is more suited to the cow.”
The changes will continue and will be monitored each year, but Brian and Karrinjeet say they’re not alone in adapting to a different climate.
“It’s not a journey we’re taking on our own,” Brian said. “Other farmers are waking up to this as well. We’re sharing knowledge and learning from each other. We’re all trying new things and having a crack at different things.”