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Challenging the public perception of drought: not all farmers are 'busted cockies with starving animals'

By National Regional Reporting Team's Marty McCarthy, Tuesday August 7, 2018 - 06:33 EST

Farmers are concerned the media is focusing too heavily on drought disaster stories that are damaging the reputation of Australia's livestock industry.

They also say the majority of farmers are not shooting their animals or letting them starve in paddocks.

In recent weeks, stories profiling farmers struggling to feed stock, often showing underweight sheep or cows or even dead livestock, have been headline stories across Australia.



"In the media at the moment all you seem to see is busted cockies with starving animals. I don't know if that is a great reflection of what is happening out there," Scone farmer Adam Williamson said.

"These are times where there's a lot of judgment on people not doing the right thing, and I don't think the industry wants to be tarred with such a brush."

Almost 100 per cent of New South Wales is either in drought, on drought watch or experiencing the onset of drought, while 57 per cent of Queensland is classified as in drought.

Mr Williamson, who has been experiencing dry conditions for two years, said many in Queensland and New South Wales had planned for drought and destocked early, while also setting aside reserve fodder or grain.

"It's sometimes a hard thing [to plan early] but that is business and that is the same for everybody across the board. It's just that in this instance animals' lives are being impacted," he said.

"In some cases it is mistreatment of these animals."

Farmers reluctant to criticise

Last week animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) posted an article arguing "If you can't feed them, don't breed them".

"From the farmers' perspective, the problem is not that they have to kill animals — since they were going to do that anyway — but that they're not getting paid to do so," the activist group wrote.

PETA's attack, which was criticised for being insensitive, came after reports a farmer in New South Wales was considering shooting 1,200 sheep if he could not find food for them.

Farmers are usually reluctant to criticise their peers for how they do or do not prepare for drought, due to the many existing pressures they face when the rains stop.



However, Tottenham sheep producer David Grieg said the public needed to realise a majority of farmers were not in such a position.

"The farmers I know aren't letting their stock starve, they are looking after them. That's how we make a living," he said.

"The desire of many media outlets to latch on to a small percentage of farmers forced to shoot their stock or perhaps get a glimpse at someone at their most vulnerable does our industry a great injustice.

"It certainly doesn't represent the way an average farmer is dealing with drought."

Risking Australia's reputation

New South Wales Agriculture Minister Niall Blair cautioned farmers and the media for only focusing on negative stories during drought, as it could risk Australia's reputation abroad as a sustainable and viable meat-producing nation.



"The risk is when we walk out the door in an international market to say 'We are all good, we can do that, we can meet that demand' and then one of our competitors walks in and says 'Hang on, did you see what they said last week about their conditions?'

"I'm not dismissing the fact we are in a dire situation for drought, but I also know we have some of the most resilient farmers and we have farmers that have put plans in place to be able to meet that demand."

Mr Grieg said he had planned for this drought by destocking early, and in the early days had 300 tonnes of grain set aside to see him through 12 months of supplementary feeding.

That grain has now run out, and while Mr Grieg admits sourcing food in the future will be tough, culling animals is not an option.



Preparing for tough conditions

Sam Heagney, from South Bunarba Agriculture in Mungindi on the Queensland-New South Wales border, said his business had now sold all its cattle and was preparing for a second year in a row of failed chickpea, barley and wheat plantings.



He said that while farmers were all in different financial positions, and therefore some were better equipped to deal with the drought than others, the conversation around how farmers dealt with drought needed to change, to encourage more farmers to prepare for future dry times.

"While it is very tough emotionally and financially, we are still looking after our environment and animals as best we can," he said.

"There are four certainties in life — death, taxes, droughts and the fact droughts will end. We just don't know when this one is going to and we hope it's sooner rather than later."

Anne Farr-Hodges, a farmer from Baldry in central New South Wales, said her and her family had prepared for this drought, but that could often bring feelings of guilt.

"Everyone has planned to some degree, but no-one predicted it would last at least 18 months, so other people who didn't plan or who aren't as large scale and don't have the ability to put feed away are the ones doing it a lot more tough than we are," she said.

"No-one wants to see livestock dying or dry paddocks, but I think those who have been hard-headed and planned for this have what I'd liken to survivor's guilt."


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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