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Australian agriculture bounces back to life as BOM heralds wet start to 2020

By Lucy Thackray and Tim Fookes, Thursday April 2, 2020 - 12:30 EDT
ABC image
Walgett, in north-west NSW, has struggled through eight years of drought but is now having a promising start to the season. - ABC

Parts of eastern Australia have seen the wettest start to a year in nearly a decade, sending agricultural production bursting back to life.



The Bureau of Meteorology said rainfall across the country had been close to average nationally, but some inland areas including New South Wales and Victoria recorded above-average rainfall.

With falls of more than 100 millimetres in areas, parts of NSW broke records for the amount of rain in March, while others had their biggest monthly falls for March in at least 20 years.

"That winter rainfall is really important for agriculture," BOM senior forecaster Blair Trewin said.

"Even if there is less rainfall than summer, because there's less evaporation in winter that rain is really important.

"This is a more encouraging forecast than what we've seen at this time of year for the last three years."



Best start in eight years

Walgett resident Enid Coupe said the rain had saved her family business from the brink of collapse.

She and her husband, Hunter, have a spraying business and also run a small farm in Walgett in north-west NSW.



Ms Coupe says the last quarter's rain came just in time, after almost a decade of extremely difficult conditions for the entire region.

"We've struggled from month to month for the last eight years," she said.

"It's nice to actually have a bit of solid work to get some money in our back accounts for a little while.

"Because of the rain at the start of the year, we've done more spraying with our business in the last two months than in the last four years — it's a big difference."



Ms Coupe said "inches" of follow up rain were still needed for farmers to re-establish a full soil profile after such a long dry period.

Supply shortages, however, could curb efforts to make the most of last quarter's rainfall.

"The biggest issue for ag at the moment is how hard it can be to find weedkiller," Ms Coupe said.

"I don't think the suppliers of glyphosate in Australia anticipated that the entire eastern seaboard would have a spray round and use up all the spray in the country.

"Now we've got places that need spraying and they can't get chemicals, and supplies are hard to get as well."



Machinery sales resume

Farm machinery and equipment retailers are dealing with an increase in buyer enquiries after a period of decline in recent years.

Geronimo Farm Equipment, which supplies silos and a range of machinery across the country, is among those seeing buyers return.

"It's been a tough time, but the rain has really turned things around," sales manager Chris Sweeney said.

"The Victorian market has really held the rural economy up recently, but now, with rain in parts of Queensland and New South Wales, there's been a lot more interest.

"The confidence levels have gone from zero to a hundred in just a few weeks."



Mr Sweeney said while it had been challenging for some farmers to access cash or loans to purchase equipment, farmers were prepared.

"We've seen enquires for tractors and air seeders, while people who have been waiting for the rain to happen are now looking down the track to harvest and wanting to buy silos and grain augers," he said.

"Farmers in some cases are no longer having to pay for hay and feed, allowing the ability to purchase machinery and infrastructure again."

Cattle come home

Some farmers who sent their stock away to be agisted on greener pastures last year are now seeing them return.

For many, it was their last chance to protect their bloodlines before they needed to destock.



But now the rain has transformed dry paddocks, with enough feed for many of these cattle and sheep to return.

"After nine months away, what's left of our breeders have finally come home," said Quambone's Katrina Walker.

"I'm so glad we've got them and so grateful at how quickly the country has turned around with this rain!"

Demand for feed drops

Manufacturers of livestock feed have noticed a slow down in demand as more farmers are able to put stock back into paddocks.

MSM Milling in central west NSW had seen a surge in demand for its canola meal livestock pellets in 2019, but numbers had fallen significantly due to the rainfall.

"The demand for pellets was insatiable but as the season has started to break in some areas, that demand has dropped off," director Bob Mac Smith said.



"The silver lining to that is that we are now confident canola will once again be grown in NSW, so we will be able to source canola locally again for our other products.

"We're actually pretty happy the rain has meant the demand for livestock pellets has dropped away."

The latest ABARES report showed canola production in NSW for 2019/20 was expected to be 225,000 tonnes — 75 per cent below the ten-year average.

Drought far from over

While it has been a welcome start to the year for producers, drought conditions remain amid warnings a lot more rain is needed.

The NSW Department of Primary Industries says 95 per cent of the state remains in drought, but most regions are seeing conditions ease.

"Drought conditions are weakening, particularly on the coast, north-west and west of the state, but in other areas in the west and far west drought conditions are breaking," DPI climatologist Anthony Clark said.

"Nearly every area in the state is on a knife edge and vulnerable to what's known as a false break.

"Follow up rain over the next few months is vital to really turn this around.

"We need at least 50mm of rain each month for the next four months to really turn conditions for the better."


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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