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NSW farmers counting on autumn break

NSW Rural Reporters, Tuesday March 4, 2014 - 10:18 EDT
ABC image
Sheep drink at a dam on a property near Oaklands in the southern Riverina. It's been a hot dry summer for the region. - ABC
ABC image
Weekend rain brought mixed blessings to north-west NSW, some areas reporting rain in excess of 200 mms, while others missed out completely - ABC

The autumn break can't come soon enough for farmers who have been hand feeding livestock for months on end in NSW.

It's desperately needed across the states dryland cropping regions, where there's barely any sub-soil moisture for sowing grain crops.

It's also vital for the mental well-being of those farmers that have been battling through drought.

At Yugilbar station just north of Grafton, they've had just ten per cent of their normal annual rainfall in the last 12 months.

The Santa Gertrudis stud owned by the Myer family, grows a range of crops, including soybeans on their 14,000 hectares.

The station's general manager, Rob Sinnamon says they're in a rainfall deficit.

"To date this year we've had 60 millimetres compared to 600 mills this time last year.

"Going into winter we're concerned about the body of feed we'll have to sustain us through.

"I see late winter and spring being a very difficult time for us."

On the NSW northern slopes and plains and the northern tablelands, summer storms have dumped some handy rain in some places.

It's been enough to put some water in a dam or two, but properties just a few kilometres up the road haven't had a drop and their dams remain empty.

It'll come as no surprise that there was below average rainfall last month on both the slopes and plains, and on the tablelands.

Among the highest official February figures was at the village of Bellata which received 73 millimetres.

However, only half of that was received at Moree which is just half an hour's drive north.

While that Moree rain hasn't been enough to close the cracks in the soil, it has been enough to bring on the weeds.

General manager of the Northern Tablelands Local Land Services, Paul Hutchings, says there are plenty of communities doing it tough.

"There are different landscapes, different climates, different farming and agricultural systems.

"Take the Walcha landscape - high rainfall, improved pastures, yet you've got some the lowest rainfall records ever on history.�

Walcha cattleman Peter Wauch doesn't expect things to improve any time soon.

"We're short of rainfall and we've got the two driest months coming up, where we never get rain, so it won't be good for winter."

The rainfall event over the weekend, while patchy, did hit some regions that were desperate for moisture.

At Broke in the Hunter Valley, Mike Hewitt has been offloading cattle and was bringing in grassy hay for his cows to eat.

He says the follow up rain of 35 millimetres should help build feed on the farm for the winter.

"It's just been ideal.

"It's been steady soaking rain and wherever there is kikuyu grass, you can literally see it growing before your eyes."

The plains of western NSW have been at the pointy end of the drought; Walgett, Brewarrina and Bourke landholders have been struggling with seasonal conditions for more than 18 months.

The hot dry summer conditions have exacerbated the situation and the dry conditions have spread south and east.

Summer storms in the last few days have brought relief to some areas - but not to everyone.

Official Bureau of Meteorology rainfall measurements vary from more than 100 millimetres at Lake Cargelligo to just one millimetre at Wilcannia.

The unofficial measurements tell even a crueller story.

One grazier near Bourke reports rainfall of as much as 200 millimetres inches in some paddocks, while drought stricken farmers near Walgett say they've missed out completely.

It's not just farmers who are feeling the pinch.

Don Ramsland, general manager of the Walgett Shire says the loss of social capital from small rural communities in times of drought is a huge economic cost.

He says small businesses and rural contractors lose valuable staff who are then not readily replaceable when the season changes.

"One of the proposals that Walgett Shire has put on the table, is an employment relief scheme aimed at those traditional farm workers, where they would be engaged by local government and work on the sort of infrastructure projects that council would like to do but they're just too expensive."

Mr Ramsland says the proposal would be funded on a dollar for dollar basis by the Federal Government and the local government.

Despite bores and waterways running dry, farmers in the states Central West have managed to cope with the lack of summer rain.

Monthly rainfall during January was down by 80 per cent in some places.

Crookwell and Cowra received just 11 millimetres, while Oberon recorded 16 from its usual 101 millimetres.

Judith Cook from Manildra says she's been one of the lucky ones.

"We're very fortunate here, we've happen to be under a couple of clouds that have given us the rain.

"We've also tried to set ourselves up with a bit of hay and grain to feed stock when necessary.

"You can't do that without the weather shining on you and some of those poor people west of here, haven't been able to do that to catch up from the last drought."

Into the south-west of the state and it's a similar story.

The dry hot summer has forced some landholders in the Riverina to pipe water to livestock, reduce sheep and cattle numbers and hand feed those animals they've kept.

Grain growers are now preparing paddocks for sowing cereal and oilseed crops next month.

Brent Alexander at Milbrulong near Lockhart says while there's not a lot of sub-soil moisture, he's not too concerned just yet.

"The optimum level, we probably need three or four inches (of rain), but in this southern region, we'll sow on a lot less moisture than that.

"Hopefully we'll get it topped up during the winter and the spring."


© ABC 2014

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