You can’t make this shit up! That’s how I would summarise the season so far. Not too much on the farming side has gone according to plan over the last year. This is a fairly long read but is a documentary of all that’s happened and happening on the farming side over the season so far. Personally life is great, but it’s been a very, very challenging year on the farm.
I’ve been saying for a while now that our area is going to be in serious trouble when the next big drought hits. Well here it is. The last serious drought was in the early 90’s and then before that in the early 80’s. In both cases the drought was prolonged and lasted several seasons. This year is a far more servere drought but it’s only into its second season for most and in our case it’s our first season. This is bad news if the past is any indication of what’s to come. The rains usually shuts off around about now, so you have to plan that the next good rain will be in October. A good winter rain or snow is a bonus that you get in some years but you don’t bank on it.
Never in my worst nightmare would I have thought that by the end of March our dam would not yet be full, so nothing will surprise me now. It’s been amazing to see what a dramatic effect the huge increase in irrigation in our catchment has had. The area irrigated in our catchment has probably increased 4 or 5 fold since the early 90’s so a drought of the same magnitude now feels far worse than it did 20 years ago. One good rain used to get the river flowing again and our dam would fill over a few days. Now we need really good ran with a follow up rain to get the river flowing.
The Mzintlava River which flows through our farm and into our dam, stopped flowing in early August. We had a small amount flow onto the farm in early December, but only enough to raise the dam about 50 cm. Since the beginning of February we have been fortunate to have some decent rain. We had 100 mm in February and so far we’ve had 80 in March. When normal monthly rainfall follows 11 months of next to bugger all, the rain just seems to dissappear. The rain that fell two weeks ago got the river flowing again and the river has been flowing into the dam at last. It’s probably about 80% full at the moment and if the weather forecast is right about next weeks chance of rain, then the dam will fill. The water we already have in the dam will be a huge help and should get us through the winter as the irrigation demand is far less in the winter than in a dry spring and summer. It took us 6 months of the worst heat and dry weather to flatten the dam, so I guess with the winter ahead then we have conservatively got 7 months of water in the dam.
Our total rainfall for the July to June season is 385mm so far, and our roling 12 month total is 430 mm. Our farms 25 yr average is about 650 mm. It may not seem such a huge departure from the average, but it’s been extremely hot and we have had very few rainfall events of more than 20 mm. When we have had significant rain, it’s usually been followed by extreme heat with no follow up rain. According to my weather station the mean temperature for the last 12 months has been a whopping 1.2 degrees Celsius higher than the previous 12 months. That’s a huge difference! More sunshine, less rain, more evaporation, and less water for irrigation. If you have a decent rain followed by cooler weather and then a follow up rain, then it makes a big difference. If you have a decent rain followed by intense heat then you are back to square one a few days later. This has been the story of our season.
Many dairy farmers in Natal are staring down the barrel at the moment. They have hundreds, if not thousands of animals to feed off irrigated pastures but there’s one small problem, almost all the irrigation dams in our area and throughout Natal are empty or very low. This means they will be having to import a huge amount of feed at least until the spring. A dry winter and spring is far more common than a wet winter and spring so you have to assume the worst is going to happen. If the rains then come as they should in October then by that time we will need a huge amount of rain to get things going. With the water table as it is at the moment, normal won’t be good enough. The beef farmers are also really struggling. The veld has turned green but it’s still short, and I expect that once the winter sets in the beef farmers will have to start off-loading more livestock as they realize that they won’t have enough veld to make it through the winter. Most of the maize grain farmers have had enough rain to get a half decent crop and they should be ok with prices being so high. The few vegetable farmers who have had enough water this year have made very good money but not many have managed to plant what they usually plant, if plant at all.
One of the bigget lessons i have learned is that with exceptional drought, come exceptional opportunities. We have had a shocking time, not just with the drought. We were hit by a quadruple whammy in one year which is going to be very difficult to recover from, but if our current plan comes off, we could actually have a pretty decent year. We at least have water in our dam again so we are better off than most farmers. The following things have gone wrong this year.
1) We have completed our milk powder factory and are ready to produce powder. This project has put us under a lot of financial pressure on the farming side.
2) The perfect storm of extremely low international milk powder prices which made it unprofitable to buy local milk and turn it into powder.
3) My dairy herd got infected with a very rare disease called Brucellosis or Contagious Abortion (CA). It normally takes years of blood tests and culling infected cows to get rid of it. We culled the whole herd.
4) We had the worst drought on record so this forced us to throw in the towel with the dairy herd and cull every single animal we owned. This gives us a chance to clean our farm of CA before getting some more cows.
5) We thought we had a borehole that could keep going almost half of our irrigation area. We thought we were pretty much drought-proof. Our borehole needed some expensive repair work to get it going again. We haven’t used the borehole in over 10 years other than a small amount for domestic and factory use. This small but constant use has obviously depleted the water completely, unless the same water source has been pumped by a neighbouring farm. You never know how the water flows underground. That’s what you call a curve ball!
Slaughtering our animals has given us the cash to keep going, complete the powder plant and establish all our crops, but it’s been a huge loss in trading income. When you have a book value of R8000 per cow and you slaughter the herd for R4000, it’s a huge loss! We have slaughtered close on 1000 cows and heifers over the last 6 months which is not a pleasant experience but I have no regrets.
As i said before that with extreme drought there are opportunities. opportunity that we saw was to use the last of our water to plant cash crops such a cabbages and turnips. Livestock feed is going to be very short in the winter so we have planted about half of our farm to turnips which are great feed for dairy and beef cattle. I have planted 14 ha of cabbages which are looking really excellent. They have made a “miraculous” recovery after getting thrashed by hail only 7 weeks ago. The price of vegetables in general is very high and cabbages are no different. Since the rains arrived more people have planted cabbages so I expect the price to drop somewhat as we get towards the winter but hopefully at least our early cabbages still get the higher price. In a normal year the cabbage price might peak at R5 per cabbage, but this year it has remained around R10 for a good sized cabbage. Hopefully the price stays high so my cabbages should go a long way to helping pay the bills.
Our survival plan is fraught with risk and uncertainty but this was the last roll of the dice for us. The bank asked me what my Plan B was, if Plan A didn’t work out? I replied: “This is already plan F and if this doesn’t work then you can have the farm”. There is however lots to be excited about. The dam is filling up and my crops are looking very good. The powder plant has made its first order of full cream, instant milk powder for Boxer Stores. It’s a house brand product which will probably be launched in Pick ‘n Pay in the next few months. This is huge news and will allow the factory to finally start paying it’s way. It’s been a long road with the powder factory, but we are almost there. Most things that could go wrong over the last year have gone wrong so this is the year of the Regression to the Mean. Let the good times roll! Turn off that TV, stop watching the news and enjoy living in this wonderful country where there is opportunity around ever corner. All that has gone badly over the last year is nothing compared to the joy of living in this wonderful place and most importantly having an amazing wife and a healthy happy baby. These are the simple joys of life, and the most important ones at that.
Here are a few before and after pictures of the farm this autumn.