Saved from drought

North East and Goulburn farmers escape the worst
North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer
WEB_Drought in NE_pe_c4_20180923
HELP THE INDUSTRY: John Conroy is a beef farmer from Milawa, and is calling for a complete overhaul of the Federal Government’s approach to dealing with the drought.

BRUCE McCormack can still remember the day he shot 500 of his father-in-law’s sheep.

The year was 1982, and the government provided bullets for free.

Bullets, worth a few cents, were a better option than keeping stock alive.

Bruce mustered the sheep into the yards on the Strathbogie farm, and systematically shot them, one by one.

It is a memory that still haunts him.

“I remember that day – not because of the conditions, of the dry or the heat, but because we were walking through a yard and shooting my father-in-law’s livelihood,” he said.

“You turned around, and all you could see were dead sheep lying on the ground – and still hundreds more to go.

“I’ll never forget it – it broke both our hearts.”

Fast forward 35 years and Bruce is one of the few farmers in the North East side-stepping similar conditions.

He and his family run a commercial Angus operation out of Merrijig – one that has been in his family for seven generations.

Nestled into the base of the High Country, Bruce’s operation spans 700 acres – and most of it has been spared the devastating conditions crippling the rest of the country.

Despite the reprieve, or perhaps because of it, Bruce feels nothing but sympathy for those battling a spring with no rain.

“We will be ok – we had another 11ml mid-September, and while it won’t be much of a season, it won’t send us to the wall,” Bruce said.

“I feel for those who are doing it tough – we’ve been through it, but never for years at a time; they’ve forgotten what a good year looks like.”

Just over the mountains and Milawa farmer John Conroy has called for a complete overhaul of the Federal Government’s approach to dealing with the drought.

Like Bruce, John farms in an area that has been relatively shielded from drought.

But, he said, there were thousands of others far less fortunate.
“We are all helplessly watching the drought in NSW and Queensland crippling agriculture,” he said.

“We are facing a failed winter crop, along with depleted grain and fodder reserves in the supply system and due to that, the livestock industries are paying unaffordable rates to grow, maintain, or produce commodities from livestock.

“Should this be the case – or are our governing bodies fleecing us?

“Our government needs to stop neglecting our farmers and rural communities.”

John wants Australians to unite, giving voice to their concerns to local MPs, bank managers and direct to the government before it’s too late.

“We can’t just sit and wait for government to act in the best interests of our country,” he said.

“Australian farmers require swift actions from our leaders to help soften the blow and try to have our agricultural sectors remain viable into the future.”

Almost two hours to the east and Greg Brooks runs 300 milking cows on his dairy farm at Strathmerton.

Attracted to the area a decade ago for its central location, 20 inch rainfall and deep lead bore, Greg is likewise facing a tough season – but not as tough as some.

“We are still looking to find a couple of hundred thousand dollars with grain, water and other costs,” he said.

“We normally cut 300 tonnes of fine-chop silage – this season it might be 150-200 tonnes instead – but it will still be reasonable for us.”

Greg is already contemplating sowing sorghum or millet as a summer crop to bolster feed, and will consider pulling back his milking herd if the season continues to worsen.

“We haven’t had substantial rainfall here for quite a period of time – you only have to look at crops in the region to know everyone is struggling,” he said.

Last month, 12 month old bucket reared Friesian steers sold to a top of $116 at Echuca.

Further proof, Greg said, that the problem was compounded across the industry.

“You obviously lose money selling them for that – but everything else is being effected by the season; hay and grain prices are effected, so then the ability to feed is – things could really drop away substantially in milk production over the next 6-12 months,” Greg said.

Currently, over 40 per cent of dairy farms are located in drought affected regions, with more than 2000 dairy farms affected across New South Wales, Queensland, Murray and East Gippsland.

Dairy Australia’s Hay and Grain Report highlights the reality of the rising feed prices.

In the Murray Dairy region, where dairy is underpinned by access to irrigation, prices for water have been elevated on the temporary market, trading at over $300 per megalitre.

Due to the demand for fodder from drought affected regions, hay prices have more than doubled since January, costing farmers up to $425/tonne excluding GST in the Murray Dairy region.

Grain prices have also increased over 60 per cent in the same time period, to $420/tonne.

“Typically, farmers will grow the bulk of their annual feed supply in spring, but for many dairy farmers, notably those along Australia’s east coast, it will be tough to achieve the growth required and farmers will need to consider feed purchases to address the gap,” chair of Dairy Australia, Jeff Odgers, said.

“Our major concern is that we have seen rising feed costs heavily impacting farmers’ cash flow and access to feed, particularly fibre, is becoming much harder.

“This means as dairy farmers try to hold core herd numbers together, they’re more exposed to the inflated feed costs we’re seeing across Australia.”

According to the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), winter rainfall for Victoria was below average across the north and east of the state, while in the southwest and south it was generally close to average.

The BOM has also issued the October – December climate outlook, which indicates large parts of Australia are likely to be drier than average.

This month, there is a strong likelihood of drier conditions across most of the country, with a drier and warmer-than-average end to the year meaning there will be a low chance of recovery for drought-affected areas of eastern Australia.

More farming news and stories can be read in the October, 2018 print edition of North East & Goulburn-Murray Farmer or click here to access digital editions.