Surviving a two-year drought

The southern Western Cape is experiencing the worst drought in more than a century and running a profitable dairy has become next to impossible. But with clever management and stringent production methods, Brian Hume and his family are confident their dairy farm in Riversdale will survive. Denene Erasmus visited him on his farm.

It’s the worst drought to hit the southern part of the Western Cape this century. All farmers have suffered, but for dairy producers it has been especially difficult. Normally, they milk cows running on irrigated pasture, but the drought has forced them to buy in all their feed. With feed prices continuing to rise, running a profitable dairy operation has become almost impossible.

That’s unless you apply the stringent production decisions Brian Hume and his family have made. Brian manages a 500-cow unit with his brother Garth and father Jack on their 800ha farm in Riversdale, also running a 500-ewe Dormer-cross sheep flock. The farm has 120ha irrigable land that has been lying fallow for more than a year.

“Normally we have enough water during summer to irrigate all the land,” says Brian. “In winter we rely on rain for pasture for our sheep and cows. We plant ryegrass and a variety of small grains, and produce enough for silage and hay to supplement our feed reserve in summer.

“But this is our second dry winter. We have no water left for irrigation and haven’t planted any pasture. It’s been a difficult two years.”

As most other dairy farmers in the region, they now buy in all the feed. But the feed cost has increased from 40% to 80% of their income per volume of milk produced. Some farmers are slaughtering their replacement heifers as they can’t afford to feed them.

So why is Brian confident his dairy will survive the drought?
 
More productive cows
Despite the drought, they’ve managed to maintain their Jersey and Friesian dairy herds, although they haven’t been able to expand. “Our production costs are too high to retain average producers,” he explains. “Before, our cows averaged 7l day. Now the cut-off is 12l day. If a cow produces less, we can’t afford to keep her. Because we’ve had to cull less productive cows, we now have a more productive herd than before the drought.”
 
More milk to survive
Some in the industry say that dairy farmers are producing too much milk and should cut down to avoid the low price associated with oversupply, but the fact is that dairymen have to produce more just for an income to survive on, explains Brian. The drought forced Brian to increase the productivity of their herd by feeding cows good quality feed. This further increased production: cows now average 19l day, whereas before it was 15l day on pasture.

This means that despite the drought, the dairy now produces more milk than it used to. All the same, milk buyers warn that overproduction could cause the milk price to fall. Some are already paying farmers less for milk, but Brian insists that dairymen have no choice but to increase production.

“The main problem with low-quality feed is that late lactation cows dry off two to three months prematurely, and still have to be fed,” he says. “Each cow costs us R50,50/day. Feed alone is R40,50 of that. To break even, we have to average 15,5l/day. To make a profit, we have to average more.

“Even if we earn only 5c/l„“, a wheelbarrowful of 5c coins is better than a bucketful of 5c coins.”
 
A new breeding approach

The Humes use artificial insemination in their herd. “Before the drought we would inseminate the entire herd with proven dairy semen,” explains Brian. “Now we select only the top two-thirds of the herd for this. The other third we use to produce beef calves that are sold soon after birth.

We have considered applying even stricter selection criteria, and if the drought persists the present dairy-to-beef ratio could change. Spending money to save money Although unable to make any large capital investment since the start of the drought as all cash reserves go into buying feed, the Humes have made smaller investments to save money.

“We partnered with another farmer and bought a truck to transport our feed after we realised it would be cheaper to do things this way,” says Brian. “Then we bought feed in bulk in summer when it was cheaper. At the time it was a huge expense and we took a knock because we were spending money we didn’t have, but in the long run we saved money because the feed price went up.”

They also installed a new computerised management system that tracks each cow’s milk production and feed supplement consumption. “Supplements are very expensive and we don’t want to feed more than the cows need. The system allows us to determine each cow’s ration,” says Brian.
 
Government support

“We’re very grateful for the support we received from government – every bit helps – but in reality its contribution has been small,” admits Brian.

To put things into perspective, he explains that the support they received from government, after the drought was declared a national disaster, amounted to feed worth R21 000 in one month and R16 000 the next. They use R23 000 worth of feed per day to sustain their animals.

Hoping for rain

“Currently our income doesn’t match our expenses. We had some reserves that we used to keep the business running. When that ran out we started slaughtering more cattle to cover our costs, and we can sell even more if we need to,” Brian points out.

“What we don’t want to do is sell our equipment and other large assets. For example, if we have to sell a tractor now, it would cost us far more to replace it when we need it again – and I’m sure we will need it again.” Brian believes it would take as little as two to three months to restore their farm once the rain comes. “We’re keeping the farm running as best we can – all we need for things to go back to normal is good winter rain this season,” he says.

Contact Brian Hume on 082 874 6487 or (028) 713 4108 or e-mail [email protected]