Cattle farmers across NSW are battling drought

Chris Haycock remembers proudly telling his father their farm was drought proof.

They had worked hard to fill their sheds and silos with hay and grain - enough to feed their large herd for 18 months.

Now he feels like a fool. The drought in the Central Tablelands has long passed 18 months. The sheds are bare and the silos are empty. Their farm is a dustbowl.

Half their prized cattle - boasting genetics built up over several decades - had to be sold. Many were slaughtered because nobody wanted them.

Meanwhile, calves were weaned from their mums at six weeks - it was the only option to give the cows a fighting chance. Now the calves are being sustained on a special pellet diet that’s costing $11,000 a week.

STRUGGLE STREET: A cow and calf on the Haycock property at Yeoval.

STRUGGLE STREET: A cow and calf on the Haycock property at Yeoval.

The sixth-generation farmers at Yeoval - between Orange and Dubbo, had one of the largest Red Angus cattle herds in the country until the drought forced them to start selling. They’d even sourced genetics from overseas to improve their stock.

I thought we had drought proofed our property, I didn’t think the drought would have gone on for so long, it should have broken by now, we’ve only had 18mm of rain so far this year,

Chris Haycock

If a break does not come in the next eight weeks they will be forced to walk away from the farm. The family has swallowed their pride and launched an Adopt Our Cattle program in a bid to raise money to help feed their animals through winter.

Gut-wrenching stories like this are surfacing across a large part of NSW and it’s blatantly clear that Hunter farmers aren’t the only ones battling very trying circumstances.

FIGHT OF THEIR LIFE: John, Brooke, Chris, Thomas and Jack Haycock on their farm at Yeoval, which has been in their family for six generations.

FIGHT OF THEIR LIFE: John, Brooke, Chris, Thomas and Jack Haycock on their farm at Yeoval, which has been in their family for six generations.

STATE OF PLAY

Parts of the Hunter, North West, Northern Tablelands, Central West, Western District, Central Tablelands, Greater Sydney and South East regions are in drought. 

Take a look at the drought for yourself. Click on the + button to zoom in. 

Hay and grain are scarce across the state which has forced farmers to look to Queensland, Victoria and South Australia for supplies. Some farmers are even carting grain from Western Australia.

Hay supplies in Victoria are becoming harder to find as farmers there start stockpiling fodder to feed their livestock through winter. 

NSW DROUGHT: The Combined Drought Indicator shows 10.7 per cent of the state is in drought, 30.3 per cent is on the onset of drought and 56.9 per cent is borderline. Only 1.1 per cent of the state is not in drought.

NSW DROUGHT: The Combined Drought Indicator shows 10.7 per cent of the state is in drought, 30.3 per cent is on the onset of drought and 56.9 per cent is borderline. Only 1.1 per cent of the state is not in drought.

The rising demand has pushed the price of lucerne hay up to more than $500 a tonne. That price has jumped $100 a tonne in the past two months.

Freight costs are thousands of dollars more than the price of the fodder.

 For instance, a load of 30 bales of hay from Victoria (near the NSW border) is $1500 and it costs around $6000 to bring it to the Hunter.

A manufacturer of livestock pellets in Manildra, between Orange and Parkes, is receiving 100 orders a day and customers have been asked to order six weeks in advance to ensure their supply. 

Huge numbers of cattle are moving through saleyards across the state. Orange holds the record for the most cattle sold in a NSW sale after 11,368 of them moved through the yards two weeks ago. Normally that venue would only have about 2000 cattle at this time of year. 

Many cattle are being slaughtered as most farmers don’t have enough feed and water to add to their herd. A lot are breeding cows, which normally stay on a farm for several years producing calves. Many of them boast genetics that have been built up over several decades.

FORCED TO SELL: Farmers across the state have been forced to sell stock. Many have been slaughtered because nobody wanted them.

FORCED TO SELL: Farmers across the state have been forced to sell stock. Many have been slaughtered because nobody wanted them.

Feeding core breeding stock through the drought – if the water supply holds – allows farmers to preserve the blood lines they have created.

The oversupply of cattle has put added pressure on abattoirs across the state and left many – including those in the Hunter – up to a month behind in their slaughter schedule. 

It is also bringing cattle prices down, which are governed by supply and demand. 

Prices at Scone saleyards have dropped 50 per cent in the past five weeks, and it’s a similar story in Tamworth, Orange and other parts of the state. 

HUNTER DROUGHT: 33 per cent of the region is in drought, 39 per cent is at the onset of drought and 28 per cent is borderline and could slip into drought or recover. Source: NSW Department of Primary Industries

HUNTER DROUGHT: 33 per cent of the region is in drought, 39 per cent is at the onset of drought and 28 per cent is borderline and could slip into drought or recover. Source: NSW Department of Primary Industries

Fat cattle are still fetching a good price in some places, like Maitland and Wagga Wagga, but they are becoming harder to find. 

Meanwhile, cattle prices in parts of Queensland have soared after recent rain, with some making $3000. 

MORE CHALLENGES 

Falling temperatures, and snow and frosts in some parts of the state, are already presenting an additional challenge for farmers. They must feed their cattle twice as much so they can withstand the conditions. 

When frosts hit the Lower Hunter – usually in June – pasture growth will stop. 

“As soon as we start getting a few frosts farmers are going to have to start making more decisions,” Bowe and Lidbury director Tony Bowe, who is based in Maitland, said.

“It’s not a good position to be in when you are travelling into winter.”

We are hanging in the balance, the feed situation is not desperate here again just yet, but we’re at the wrong end of the season to grow anything - you’re not going to get a lot of growth before the frosts hit,

Snow started falling in Orange on Friday as 7000 cattle went under the hammer at a sale. That is 5000 more than usual for May.

But that’s nothing compared to their April figures which show almost 32,000 cattle were sold in a month. 

“Now we’re getting our frosts and below zero temperatures cattle are really going to struggle over the next couple of months.

It’s not the hot dry that’s going to kill us now, it’s the cold winter weather,

McCarron Cullinane stock and station agent Lindsay Fryer, who is based in Orange, said

“We’re in this now until September or October, if it rains today and the grass goes from brown to green there’s going to be no growth because it’s too cold to grow.

“Farmers need as much hay as they possibly can get to feed their livestock through the cold months.”

SUBSIDY NEEDED

The NSW Farmers Association has repeatedly called on the state government to reinstate freight subsidies which allowed farmers to recoup a percentage of the cost of transport during drought. 

But the government has not listened.

YEOVAL: Cattle eating hay in a dusty paddock.

YEOVAL: Cattle eating hay in a dusty paddock.

Instead, NSW Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair announced $20,000 drought transport loans in March which can be used to transport fodder, water or stock and have a two year no repayment no interest period.

Only four applications – collectively worth $75,000 – have been received so far and there have been 60 inquiries, according to the NSW Department of Primary Industries.

The government also has a Farm Innovation Fund, but that only offers a low-interest loan to help farmers drought-proof their farm.  

$20,000 to an operation up here is nothing really, you’ve still got to go to town for the best part of a day to get it organised and farmers don’t have the time for that. Most people have overdrafts and are going further into that,

Chris Paterson Stock and Station Agent director Chris Paterson, of Tamworth, said

Sonia O’Keefe, the NSW Farmers Association Rural Affairs Committee Chair, said freight subsidies were fairly easy to implement, engaged different farming pursuits and put money back in the farmer’s pocket to buy more feed.

HOLDING ON

Ms O’Keefe said it was very important for farmers to be able to hold on to core breeding stock, if possible.

TAMWORTH: A herd of cattle being hand fed.There is no feed in the paddocks and hay supplies are becoming scarce.

TAMWORTH: A herd of cattle being hand fed.There is no feed in the paddocks and hay supplies are becoming scarce.

The government disagrees. A spokeswoman for Mr Blair’s office said farmers were not encouraged to hold on to stock during drought, especially if they had a large herd. 

The number of years spent building a blood line was considered irrelevant. 

The spokeswoman also confirmed there was no further drought support in the pipeline. 

Ms O’Keefe said there were huge flow-on effects for farmers who were forced to sell all of their stock. 

“Producing a cow or an ewe is a long-term thing, if the number of cattle and ewes in the state is dropping then restocking when the drought breaks is difficult,” Ms O’Keefe said. 

BRING BACK THE SUBSIDY: Sonia O’Keefe, the NSW Farmers Association Rural Affairs Committee Chair, says farmers battling drought need a government freight subsidy.

BRING BACK THE SUBSIDY: Sonia O’Keefe, the NSW Farmers Association Rural Affairs Committee Chair, says farmers battling drought need a government freight subsidy.

“Prices will also rise once the drought breaks.”

MacCallum Inglis livestock agent Stuart Sheldrake, who is based in Scone, agreed. 

“It won’t be easy, it’s going to get very cold and we’ve already had a frost or two – and there’s no feed. If they are not eating the diet they require they will do it tough over the winter months and they will lose weight, there is no doubt about that.”

A lot of farms have had to totally destock, mainly due to having no water and no feed. The places that are still feeding are down to their breeding stock and are trying to stick with their younger cattle so they’ve got something to build from when it does break,

he said.

RUSHED AND TIRED

Ms O’Keefe said a drought impacted every aspect of a farming family’s life. 

“The reality was that mum was on the road with the cattle most of the day and she didn’t have time to get those things done at home. 

I remember a drought a few years ago, suddenly the clothes the children wore to school weren’t as tidy as they usually were, their homework hadn’t been done and their lunch box wasn’t as healthy and all homemade like it normally was,

she said.

“Parents are tired, resources are stretched …They struggle to find a spare couple of hours, they are doing their absolute best to deal with the situation around them.”

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