Farmers with eyes to the sky

IT’S not surprising that farmers all over Wellington Shire are watching the weather forecast a little more closely than other residents.

They’re collectively praying for rain, after suffering through a record-breaking dry spell that has hit all producers hard.

Empty rain gauges give testament to April being the driest on record in most parts of eastern Victoria.

Last Friday’s reasonably healthy cattle market in Sale gave a conflicting picture of the looming crisis, which is hitting some harder than others.

On farms throughout the shire, dams are running dry, farmers are shedding stock, and many are taking on mounting debt to feed animals.

Stock food suppliers can barely meet demand, but there is little alternative as animals and grass get thinner.

Buyer Barry Marshall, who brings in feed from the western district, said growers there are stocked up and “in for the kill”.

“Feed prices have increased twice in the past week alone,” he said.

“But we have to source our feed from the western district because local hay has all gone, and it’s been gone for at least six weeks.”

Mr Marshall said farmers were turning to silage in droves and must fork out to keep their animals alive.

Stratford farmer Peter “Chips” Cashman isn’t one to speak rashly, but reckons he hasn’t seen it this dry in 26 years.

Down to 110 breeding cows on about 200 acres, he fears he may have to empty his paddocks if the dry continues.

In recent months he has sold all his weaners, and his cows — like most in the district — have less fat on them than previous years.

“When we moved here 26 years ago it rained a lot and cattle were fat,” he said.

“We’ve had ten months of drought and now people are selling cows left right and centre.”

With cows eating about 10 kilograms of food per day, Mr Cashman said he has spent more than $2000 on feed this year.

“All farmers are in the same boat, selling up older stock and calves off the cow, and hoping to keep the breeders alive through the dry,” he said.

“But if this continues, I’ll be getting rid of all my cows until it starts to rain.”

Even those in irrigation country are fearful of what the next few weeks will or won’t bring.

Long time irrigation farmer Francis Gannon said even with water allocations, the situation was “very, very bad”.

“You can’t grow as much feed with only irrigation, because you use up your allocation,” he said.

“We’ve had only 90 millimetres of rain since December 1, with about 35 per cent contributing to growth and the rest being lost as run off or dispersed through the soil.

“In Bairnsdale they’re bringing in stock water, but we’d have to bring in 30,000 to 40,000 litres a day at the rate cattle drink water.”

Mr Gannon, who remembered the drought of 40 years ago when cattle “were worth nothing” and people abandoned calves at the Tinamba sales, said farmers were affected differently according to where they are in the development cycle. But all had a clear and solemn understanding that the coming winter will be the greatest challenge.

Stock agent of 52 years Don McMillan compared conditions to the devastating drought of 1972.

“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen it; we suffered through it in 1972 and this is as bad,” he said.

Mr McMillan said Rodwells had been advising clients to pull calves off cows quickly, and stick to breeders.

But he said the situation was “very serious”, especially for sheep farmers, who can’t pull lambs off their mothers as quickly, and are relying heavily on supplementary feed.

“Take a drive down Giffard way and you’ll see sheep in paddocks with not a blade of grass on them,” Mr McMillan said.

“They look like ploughed paddocks, and many of those sheep will be lambing in the next few weeks”.

Perry Bridge farmer David Read is one of the lucky ones who has avoided having to destock, partly because he is on a large spread covering about 2000 acres that he runs with sister-in-law Jen Riboli, and because he foresaw the future 17 years ago and switched to a holistic approach to farming, where breeding is not a focus, numbers are limited, and restocking and turnover is the farm’s mainstay.

It may be semantics, but one of Mr Read’s philosophies is to never use the word “drought”.

“Once you call it a drought, then you are in a drought and that’s when things start to look bad,” he said.

Not everyone is feeling the pinch, yet, with Friday’s cattle sales in Sale showing there are still opportunities for buyers to snap up some good animals at good prices.

Speaking last week at the Gippsland Regional Livestock Exchange, Greenwood stock agent Gordon Conners said restockers like Mr Read were in a good position to take advantage of the conditions.

“There’s more and more cattle coming on the market because of the dry conditions,” he said.

“The top end of the calves still sell about $3 per kilo, but the smaller calves that haven’t been selling well were back probably $50 to $80.”

Mr Conners said margins were still pleasing, but a good rain drenching was needed soon.

“Every day it gets closer to winter, and we still don’t have rain; we need a general break within the next week or two,” he added.

“I’ve sold bullocks to a client on Tuesday for $1700 and they’ll replace them for $700, that margin hasn’t been around for years, so anyone who’s got a bit of space, it’s a great opportunity to restock.”

Mr McMillan said the next four months will be crucial for farmers to make it to spring.

“There’s still plenty of time, if we get good consistent rain soon, we’ll be okay, but it needs to hurry,” he said.

Meanwhile, weather forecasters are predicting a cold snap to hit Victoria late this week and over the weekend, with a potential for storms, hail and “significant rain”.

But uncertainty remains about where the highest falls will occur.

Agriculture Victoria, which maintains frequent communication with primary producers in the Wellington Shire, said it would continue providing services as needed to support producers, including a workshop planned for mid-May in the Giffard area.

A range of state and federal government assistance is available to farmers in need, as well as drought concessional loans and the Farm Household Allowance.

Producers facing financial difficulties are encouraged to phone the Eastern Rural Financial Counselling Service on 5662 2566 for support.

— with Alex Ford