Drought battle continues for Aussie cattle farmers

Cattle are struggling to survive the drought conditions
Cattle are struggling to survive the drought conditions

October’s arrival means that another season has passed with barely a drop falling, leaving communities in the outback desperate and vulnerable as they face the imminent return of the relentless summer heat which can top 40C.

Though water isn’t completely absent – farmers draw it from boreholes sunk to depths of up to 2,000m into the Great Artesian Basin which spans under one fifth of Australia’s land mass – there are strict regulations on abstraction which means that irrigation isn’t an option.

Longreach is one affected community where destocking has reached between 80-90%, another, 200km north-west, is Winton, where destocking levels are between 50-60%.

Income from agriculture has ground to a halt for many, which is having a knock-on effect on other businesses – the food retailers, agricultural merchants and electrical stores, to name but a few.

There are farmers trying to hold on to their breeding stock as an economic lifeline for when the rains do return, but many of these just cannot sustain the huge cost of freighting in feed across hundreds of miles, and will probably have to sell their last remaining beasts.

For some desperate farmers, they have taken to walking their stock along the roadsides, where some grass grows following the run-off of the night-time dew that forms on the cooling road surface.

The consequence of the drought is that beef prices have risen from AUS$2.50 a kg up to as high as AUS$5.90 a kg which, if sustained, will make restocking costs crippling.

Rick Britton farms half a million acres in Boulia Shire, near Winton. He is also the local mayor.

During normal seasons Mr Britton runs between 8,000 and 9,000 head of cattle – a mixture of drought-resilient breeds – the Senator Droughtmaster and Boss Imigus X Brahman.

He says that there hasn’t been a drought this bad since the 1960s, so the current situation is “uncharted territory” for him and most other farmers.

The grazing on his property is predominantly Mitchell grass, and in the oppressive dryness looks little more than brittle tufts of dry stalks.

Rain or no rain Mr Britton is strategic in his grazing management; he measures the dry matter of his grazing paddocks once every three months by weighing the grass in a 0.5sq m quadrant linked to a GPS-based mapping system.

He starts measuring at what is normally the end of the rainy season in April, right through to the next wet season.

In the absence of rains, these vital assessments continue, because over-grazing could leave the grazing land stripped of plants resulting in no forage when the rains do return.

His selection of cattle to destock during the drought has been carefully planned.

“I would normally keep breeding cows to 10 years of age, now they are all aged eight and under; and any not PDed in calf are also sold,” said Mr Britton.

All of his fattening stock have already left the station, with the Droughtmasters going to meat processors on Australia’s Eastern Seaboard and the Brahman X going via the live export market to Indonesia – a vital market for Australia.

This farmer’s hope is that he can survive the drought with 2,000 breeding cattle still on his property, but he is not going to let his grazing suffer and will sell them if he needs to.

“If the dry matter drops too low, these will have to go too,” he said.

To add to the vulnerability of outback farmers, much of this semi-arid station country is much better suited to sheep than cattle, but the scourge of Australia’s wild dogs – dingoes and a mongrel cross of dingo and feral domesticated dogs – mean that sheep losses are too great to make sheep farming viable.

Shooting and baiting dogs is undertaken, but these practices aren’t making much of an impact because of the large areas dog trackers need to cover, and the size of the canine population.

One other consequence of the drought is the impact on biodiversity. Trees are dying and bird life only seems present close to the farm buildings and homesteads where the galahs (parrots), cockatoos and smaller birds can access water and some feed.

The kangaroo and wallaby populations have also plummeted, with many being hit by cars after being drawn to graze the roadside dew-irrigated grass.

One station owner said that he had hauled over 90 dead kangaroos out of a dam (reservoir) which is now without water.

“The wildlife is drawn by the smell of water, but get bogged in the clayey bottom,” he said.

In Barcoo Shire, Julie Groves, mayor and station owner, said that the kangaroos are coming into the towns in search of food and water and are getting territorial and aggressive towards people. She has asked the state government for funding from the $35million (£16.55million) Community Drought Fund, to erect a perimeter fence around three towns to keep the “roos” out.

Certainly things are very tough, says fifth-generation grazier and Nuffield scholar James Walker, who farms Campden Park station near Longreach.

But his positive mindset is being put to good use.

He wanted to give his fellow farmers hope, so founded a concept called the Big Night Outback CEO Summit.

Mr Walker said: “I held the first CEO Summit in Longreach in August of this year, my aim was to try and find solutions to our short-term issues that weren’t just band-aids (plasters), as well as to instil hope and vision for the future.”

More than 200 people attended the sessions led by some of Australia’s leading company CEOs – all of them from outside agriculture.

Mr Walker said: “My thinking was that business leaders from other sectors could offer us some new thinking. They did and it was an invaluable useful exercise.

“Drought is part of farming in the outback, but despite this, I believe we can better equip ourselves for the future. We need to build resilience into our businesses by diversifying – for example into tourism – as well as building more commercial rigour into farming businesses.”

Like Scotland, this community is also lobbying for superfast broadband.

Talking candidly about his own business, Mr Walker said: “We destocked two years ago, but have been developing other business activities. My brother Daniel has been using the time to build an income stream from outback farm tours for tourists, and I have been spending time on developing the CEO Summit concept and an online agri-business community, AgriHive.”

The next stages for Queensland’s outback communities will be tough with a continuation of limited, or no income, at least three more months of the dry season ahead and with no guarantees of rain after that.

Those that have been able to – such as Rick Britton – have reserved capital for restocking, while others that have used capital to live on, have kept a close dialogue with their banks and will have to borrow when the time is right to restock.

For those who have done neither, their future on the land is bleak. However, despite the adversity of the outback, there are farmers like James Walker and Rick Britton whose resilience and mounting vision for survival on their land is humbling.