Hunter drought 2018: Matt and Emily Neilson have already used their winter hay supplies

The desperation of the drought hangs in the air and the stress and worry of the situation is clearly on Matt and Emily Neilson’s minds.

They’ve already used all of their winter feed reserves and they are walking a financial tightrope trying to provide for their herd – and themselves – while nature holds an unrelenting drought over their heads. 

Their Bandon Grove dairy herd – 74 milking cows and 80 dry cows and heifers – is a quarter of the size of most dairy farms across the Hunter. 

But that doesn’t mean their challenges are any easier. It just means the drought is easing them into debt while other farmers are already up to their necks in it. 

They should have luscious pastures as far as the eye can see. 

They should have 140 bales of hay in the shed ready to feed the cattle through winter. 

Instead they have none of it. They have been hand feeding all of their cattle since the new year and even if it rains, they won’t be able to make enough to see them through the next few months.

The dire situation left them with no choice but to buy in straw from South Australia. It’s not an ideal source of food for dairy cows, who are like racehorses and have to be fed the best of everything to make milk.

Take a look at the dramatic change – slide the photo below for a before and after glimpse.

But it was the only roughage source they could afford.

The Neilson’s have called on the state government to issue low-interest loans – that are easily accessible, a replant grant to prevent erosion and a one-off cash payment.

“You’re looking at $300 a tonne plus to get anything with a bit of quality – and $400 a tonne for lucerne hay - and that is more expensive than the grain. I was thinking we would have some green feed in a couple of weeks and I thought it was better to take a drop in the milk volume for a week or two and just get through that way,” Mr Neilson said. 

“I’m hoping we get rain by the end of this month – even the first week of next month – if that happens we might be able to get some crops going. Our biggest challenge after it rains will be trying to re-establish our pastures – we’ve already spent what money we had put aside for that on drought feeding.”

The Neilson’s have been forced to tap into a water pipeline from Chichester Dam to nourish the herd because their dams are either dry or drying up. 

Their hope to irrigate has been repeatedly squashed by the low levels in the Williams River.