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Could Ord Valley hay be the solution to feed shortages in drought-stricken SE Australia?

Courtney Fowler and Daniel Fitzgerald, Thursday June 21, 2018 - 09:07 EST
ABC image
Kununurra farmer Rob Boshammer inspects some of the Rhodes Grass hay he's baled in the Ord. - ABC

Could fodder grown in Western Australia's remote Ord River Irrigation Scheme be the solution to the feed shortage on drought-stricken farmland in South Eastern Australia?

The sub-tropical climate and access to irrigation allows farmers in the Ord to produce significant tonnages of Rhodes Grass hay for the local cattle industry, yields up to 30 tonnes per hectare a year.

But there has always been a question mark over the cost effectiveness of exporting Top End fodder to the south.

Former Australian deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer said it was an idea that required immediate investigation as farmers continue to battle drought in Queensland, NSW and Victoria.

"Every 30 days another massive and magnificent set of hay bales comes off the grasses at Kununurra at the Ord River Irrigation scheme and its ultimately a resource on the market for Australia," he said.

"If this winter is a major failure in substantial rainfall in southern and eastern Australia then this will need to be looked at ASAP."

Mr Fischer is currently the chair of the International Crop Trust, bringing to the role many years of experience with Australia's rail freight industry from his time in office.

He said it could be feasible to transport hay from the Ord to Katherine, then south via the North-South Transcontinental Railway through Adelaide to Horsham in Victoria or along the east-west rail corridor which runs through South Australia to NSW's Central West.

"We have an intermodal freight hub at Katherine and also at Parkes, close to ground zero of the drought all connected by a standard gauge rail," he said.

"It needs to be worked through and examined in detail including any interstate quarantine restrictions [but] it's time to put this on the table for consideration by governmental authorities."

Freight costs a barrier for export

Peter Bagely has been farming in the Ord Irrigation scheme for more than 30 years.

He said there were endless opportunities to grow fodder crops in the north but the main barrier for export was expensive freight costs.

"Our biggest problem is it's a long way from where it would be used," he said.

"Hay is not a crop that you can transport all around the country because it doesn't have a high value and the freight would actually eat up the value of the hay.

"A really cheap rate for us is $250 a tonne to Queensland [and] hay is worth anywhere between $150 and $200 a tonne, so you're already behind the eight ball before you put it on the truck."

Mr Bagely said he could only see the scheme being feasible if the Federal Government helped subsidise the freight.

"But it would certainly give us another opportunity here for growing a different crop in a new market," he said.

"There is also a lot of country along the railway to Alice Springs that has the capacity to grow irrigated hay crops, this could give them an opportunity to grow more than is [currently] marketable."

Why not move North?

It's an idea that has been welcomed by a Darwin-based agricultural consultant Ian Baker.

"I personally think there is some opportunities for really good quality, irrigated fodder for export in the future," he said.

"I've even got a better idea; it makes much more sense for some of those southern blokes to come up here and use some of our good country and good water.

"I think the writing is on the wall for some of the blokes down there, the situation in NSW is getting deperate and it's probably not going to improve in time.

"But if we could move some hay down there today, I'm sure there's plenty of Territory boys in Katherine, the Douglas Daly and over in the Ord who would love to send it down."


© ABC 2018

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