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NSW farmers urged to plan for dry season as lack of rain increases pressure on landholders

By Robert Virtue with Paul Bevan, Thursday October 5, 2017 - 09:47 EDT
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Large parts of NSW are in desperate need of rain. - ABC

A sheep and cattle farmer from the New South Wales Hunter Valley says conditions in the region have not been as dry as they currently are in almost 40 years.

The observation came as farmers were urged to plan for the warmer months in a bid to mitigate the effects of the harsh conditions.

Ian MacCallum has worked the land around Moonan Flat in the Upper Hunter for 60 years.

"The conditions here are probably the worse they've been since 1980," he said.

"For the cattle industry, it is particularly bad because our cows have just calved, and we've got young calves on the ground which are this coming year's income.

"If they don't get well-fed now, they will not grow out, and so that affects this year's income.

"Next year's income is in the cows getting back in calf again, and it's very difficult [for that to happen] under drought conditions like we've got.

"For the cattle industry, you've got two years' income in danger."



Added pressure coming from industry issues

John Redgrove's family has operated a dairy farm at Scotts Flat, near Singleton, since 1913.

He runs 1,200 head of Friesian cattle and has had to keep some of his stock at his other property at Bunnan in the Upper Hunter.

The countryside around Scotts Flat is a patchwork of colours, from brown-beige hills to pockets of green.



The green pasture has only resulted from intense irrigation; Mr Redgrove has a licence to use water from the Hunter River to irrigate.

"It's as bad a four months that I can remember in this area," he said.

"It'd be worse if we had no water allocation; if we had 50 per cent of our allocation, things would certainly be a lot worse.

"The grazing land around here is desperately dry [and] the high cost of water is something that's a [great] concern to us.

"If we didn't have water [from the river], it'd be as dry as anywhere else."

Dairy industry 'on its knees'

Mr Redgrove said ongoing pressures on dairy farmers with low milk prices was an added strain.

"We've got 400 dairy heifers up [at Bunnan] and we're feeding them hay every day," he said.

"It's an added cost, but with dairy heifers we've got no choice, they're not like beef cattle.

"We can't sell them, so we've got to look after them to the maximum, otherwise we won't get any benefit when they do come into the dairy.

"The difficulty in selling dairy heifers is the dairy industry is on its knees. No one wants dairy cattle.

"We can send them to the abattoirs and kill them, but no one wants dairy cattle coming into this springtime pricing because most of us cop a fair reduction into spring with low milk prices, so no one is in the market to buy cattle.

"There's a lot of dairy farmers [that are] very stressed.



"Low milk prices, high irrigation costs, cattle prices at the abattoirs and saleyards have dropped significantly, so there's a real challenge there.

"General stress on people is very high, and it's not really acknowledged very much. There's a lot of problems."

Planning for extremes

With conditions already desperately dry across large swathes of the state, the NSW Government's Hunter Local Land Services (LLS) organisation is urging landholders to prepare for the added stress of warm spring and summer conditions.

"It's been a very dry winter, we've had a very dry start to the spring," Simon Turpin, LLS agriculture extensions team leader, said.

"It's like any other natural, extreme weather — fire or flooding — it's time to plan.

"It's all about planning for these things, and so it's not about how dire it is or how it's going to get, it's starting to plan that it may get worse.

"Think about selling — and probably sell earlier rather than later.

"If we go into summer and it doesn't rain, feed prices will keep going up, stock prices will go down, pastures won't be there to feed off. Planning is the key."

Farmer Ian MacCallum said conditions could turn around quickly if steady rain came.

"I would imagine people in this area are under a lot of stress at the moment; I know we are," he said.

"You're always hoping for rain, you've got to be optimistic. If you're not optimistic, you quickly go down.

"We'll get out of trouble quite quickly, but we've got to get that rain."



Support available for farmers

Farmers struggling during the dry conditions are being reminded that support is available.

Counsellor with the Rural Financial Counselling Service, Fiona Meade, said her organisation provided financial advice and could also refer affected landholders for medical support.

"Normally if I speak to them … and I can see they're under stress, because we have been trained to recognise it, the first thing I suggest is a GP," she said.

"I also leave a glovebox guide to mental health, which gives them information about where to go for help in person, on the phone, or online.

"They've got to make that step because it is for them.

"Communities are a great help — talk to your neighbour next door; you'll find that you're both in the same situation."

If you need assistance, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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