Guessing game as drought grips desperate districts in northern NSW
- From: The Weekly Times
- January 23, 2014
THE 115km stretch of road between Coonamble and Walgett in northwest NSW is long, flat and relatively unexciting.
"But geez, it's like going from the Blue Mountains to Siberia," Coonamble farmer Pat Cullen warns.
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He is, of course, referring to the difference in seasons between the two districts as a devastating drought grips large swathes of northern NSW.
According to Pat, it's not that Coonamble is faring well by any stretch of the imagination. It's just Walgett is a hell of a lot worse.
Without rain - and a lot of it - in the coming weeks, farmers already subjected to 18 months of dry face another year of little to no income.
The mixed-farming region - which usually provides a mainstay of support at Victoria's new year weaner calf sales (not this year) - is clearly hurting.
There's evidence of failed crops, scorching temperatures (feathers litter paddocks after birds fell from the sky when the mercury closed in on 50C earlier this month), dwindling water supplies and destocked paddocks.
There's talk of multi-million dollar crop losses, of cattle selling for as little as $15 a head or 10c/kg and of desperate farmers being forced to shoot their livestock as they run out of feed and water options.
Pat says the drought at Coonamble is more of a financial one than anything else.
Where more than 85 per cent of Walgett farmers didn't plant crops last year, most around Coonamble did - only to watch them fail.
Pat estimates he spent $300,000 on his 810ha of wheat and 202ha of chickpeas last year, for an $80,000 return.
"We finished up with one bag to the acre. That made it barely worth (harvesting)," he said.
"What kept us going was the stubble, which we put the sheep on."
In an average year Pat's farm, just outside Coonamble, receives 450mm. But last year just 275mm fell, mostly from January to March with "a bit" following in June.
"It looked really promising for a while but (we got) nothing after that. I reckon we've had two inches since June," he said.
That includes 30mm received in an isolated shower a fortnight ago which "put us right back in a drought because it buggered all the dry feed."
"I got (the rain) here, my neighbours got it but at Baradine they got nothing," Pat said.
"Out towards my mate's place at Come By Chance they got 7mm. It's shocking out there. Since July 2012 they've had four inches of rain."
Pat normally runs about 7000 sheep, including on a leased property at Goodooga, northwest of Walgett near the Queensland border, but admits he's lightening off numbers.
"These guys will be going off to Fletcher's abattoir in the morning - it doesn't pay to feed," he says as he points to a mob of ewes in the paddock.
Southeast of Walgett, mixed farmer Michael O'Brien crops 16,200ha of land on a rotational basis "depending on moisture".
But when rain didn't come last year he sowed just 1620ha - 1134ha of peas and 486ha of wheat.
"You don't gamble here on it raining like you do further south because we are more a summer-orientated rainfall," Michael said.
"Some people did and did their backside. It never rained at all during the winter and spring."
Michael measured 156mm last year but 200-225mm for the 18 months from July 2012, which "has set a record at the Walgett Post Office as the driest 18 months since European settlement."
"The 18 months has been a disaster because it has not only affected one year of agriculture production, now it's starting to get very close to affecting a second year," Michael said.
"If we don't get reasonable summer rain, we're not going to be able to sow. It's going to be another poor harvest or a no harvest - that'll be two years running.
"We've got no moisture, so the decision is not ours - it's in the good Lord's hands."
On the livestock front, Michael said he was "hanging in" having retained his 6000 Dohne-Merino breeding ewes and 1400 Angus cows.
"We got through a lambing and a calving with a bit of supplementary feeding but the situation is getting worse," Michael said.
At Burren Junction, David and Erica Shorter run 2500 Merino ewes on 4856ha, which "allegedly" has an average rainfall of 475mm.
"We wouldn't have had half that last year," Erica says.
"We got enough rain in autumn into sucking us into planting a winter crop," David adds.
"It was a horrible, dusty, dry drought at the end of April and then it rained a bit so we planted.
"Most of it germinated but then died."
Erica said you couldn't ride a horse across the property it was so cracked.
David said some of the lighter country would respond with 50mm but the black-soil would need "buckets" of rain - and soon.
Further east at Narrabri, sheep farmers Liz Tomlinson and Stephen McLeish said while conditions were better in their district, rain was needed within four weeks to get the season moving.
"We got really good rain in February and really good rain in late November. We were really fortunate with that because that means we haven't got a water problem.
"But only about 4km they're hand feeding and they've got no water," Liz said.
"Some people are doing it very tough."
At Premer, south of Gunnedah, NSW Farmers Association president Fiona Simson said the Federal Government must act on support measures for farmers in the dry northwest.
The Simson family farm enjoyed a reasonable year last year but remains on the lookout for rain soon.
"Last year it was too dry to sow the sorghum until January and too wet to sow the wheat until late," Fiona said.
"The canola we got in on time and it yielded really well and its oil content was great.
"But in that top northwest corner, some of those people haven't had rain since July 2012 and when they had that rain it was flooding rain.
"The soil is like powder - it has lost all the moisture."
At last week's Tamworth prime cattle market livestock agent Simon Rafferty said the yarding of more than 2000 was larger than usual and a direct result of the tightening season.
Quality was reflected in prices as some categories tumbled 20c/kg. The previous week at Tamworth plainer heifers sold for as little as 60c/kg.
"We had three to seven inches (75-175mm) of rain in November and since then there's been nothing," Simon said.
"Basically all the feed from that rain has gone now."
Monday's yarding was even bigger at almost 3000 head and accordingly rates slipped a further 20-40c/kg.
Meat and Livestock Australia said the increased yarding was due to "concerns with water" in the northern supply area.
Simon said the size of future yardings was hard to tell.
"You just don't know how many cattle are out there," he said. "I'd imagine if there's very widespread rain through eastern Australia, prices will have to go through the roof."
NSW Rural Financial Counselling Service Central West chief executive Jeff Caldbeck said the two biggest issues for northern NSW was "a lack of groundwater and a lack of cash."
"There have been good farmers who have tried to prepare themselves for this, but how long is a piece of spring?" Jeff said.
"A guy at Lightning Ridge put away over 1000 bales of hay and 1000 tonnes of grain - and it's all gone. Should he have put away 2000 bales and 2000 tonnes or 4000 bales and 4000 tonnes?
"The big thing with Walgett, the vast majority of croppers took the decision not to sow.
"It's a bit different if you sow and get four bags, but if you don't sow you know that you are not going to have a return. And that's really tough."