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Farmer in drought turns to watermelon to feed hungry cattle

By regional affairs reporter Anna Henderson, Tuesday July 17, 2018 - 00:05 EST
ABC licensed image
Hay stocks have dwindled across parts of NSW and Victoria. - ABC licensed

As the drought conditions across the east of Australia lead to a tripling in the cost of hay, one farmer has turned to watermelon as a supplement to feed his cattle.

Hay stocks have dwindled across parts of New South Wales and Victoria as the drought deepens. Prices have increased dramatically and some fodder is being sourced from as far away as Western Australia.

Michael Sweeney has already de-stocked on his drought-affected property in the Victorian high country and he has taken up an offer of free melons to feed about 100 head of beef cattle that remain on his land.

There is still some pasture for his animals and he is also providing hay.

But he turned to watermelon as another option to supplement their diet, and says after some early trepidation his cattle are eating the fruit, rind and all.

"They were sort of looking at it, going 'Where's me hay'?

"As most new things, they'll take a few days to get used to it and hopefully get into it."

A day later he reported his cattle were happy to eat the melons.

"One mob was pretty much eating the red fruit and left a lot of the rinds, where another mob was eating quite a bit of both."

He said the cost of the melons, taking into account the freight, was a quarter of the price of other feed options.

"They're high in sugar and some vitamins, so with the hay we're feeding them it might help a bit," he said.

Mr Sweeney said he was relieved by the results, because otherwise he probably would have been facing a steady diet of melons himself.

The watermelons were offered without charge by a Victorian transport company owned by Kat Gration.

She said her transport business has been extremely busy delivering hay across areas affected by the dry conditions where farmers have been hand feeding and some producers have been crippled by the cost.

"We're struggling to transport the amount of loads [of hay] and we've had to put on 13 extra subcontractors to keep up with the demand," she said.

"We are struggling to find feed that's decent quality and is at a decent price.

"A lot of hay merchants with a lot of bulk hay have actually tripled their price."

She said she decided to purchase watermelons in bulk and donate them as a free alternative, only charging the cost of freight.

"I had a fair bit of interest from New South Wales drought-affected areas for feeding their cattle, but even with the melons being free, the overall long-distance cost in terms of cartage was still out of their budget, for those that were really struggling."

She said her background in the dairy industry had shown her cattle do eat fruit.

"Farmers are very proud people but this is a serious time of year, people are shooting their stock," she said.

"It's sort of hitting close to home for me, being a farmer."

The ABC spoke to a number of animal nutritionists about the benefits of watermelon.

While none raised any concerns about the impact on the health of the cattle, they said the nutritional value of the fruit was low compared to hay, which has a high dry matter content.

The experts also warned against using watermelons that were not for human consumption, because of the risk they had been sprayed with chemicals that could cause problems for the animals and be passed on if they were slaughtered for their meat.


© ABC 2018

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