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Drought reprieve as rain fills dams and turns dusty paddocks green, but more falls needed

Cara Jeffery and Hannah Laxton-Koonce, Saturday July 20, 2019 - 19:28 EST
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Rain has been gamechanger for the Rogers family at their property Yarto, at Booligal in western New South Wales. - ABC

The green vista that now stretches to the horizon on the Rogers family's farm at Booligal, in western New South Wales, is in stark contrast to a dust storm earlier this year.

"We saw the dust coming so the four of us went outside and went to see it and were laughing and giggling to start with, however, our smiles quickly turned to fear when it actually hit us," Helen Rogers said.

"Whenever you breathed in you actually had sand and dirt in your mouth, it wasn't air at all."

Greg Rogers said it was the worst dust storm he had experienced in his lifetime living at the property Yarto, 130 kilometres north of Hay in the NSW Riverina.

"It didn't last for a long time, just 15 minutes," he said.

"But it was very severe, about 30km wide and it certainly blackened the country and turned day into night."

Weathering the storm

Greg Rogers has weathered many dust storms in his five decades of sheep farming and, while he has found the clean-up a hindrance, he accepted it was nature's way.

"It does move the top soil around, but I work on the theory some of our top soil moves to the east and that some of the people's soil from the west arrives here," Mr Rogers said.

The major dust storm that hit on February 6 was the worst of a series of dust storms they experienced, with their merino sheep copping plenty of dirt in their fleeces and stock water troughs turning to mud.

The house was not safe from the dust either; the vacuum cleaner had to be emptied six times after the big one hit.

Riverina Local Land Service veterinarian Sophie Hemley said it was just another impact some farmers have had to endure during the prolonged drought.

"Dust storms like we had last summer can be really destructive, especially if they are consecutive like the ones that we had can be really mentally and wearing on the producer," Ms Hemley said.

She said the dust storms meant more work for producers. They had to check their stock had no health issues, and clean out water troughs.

"There are also production losses like loss of topsoil, reduced average daily weight gains for livestock, and for wool producers they can have more dirt in wool," Ms Hemley said.

Bouncing back, just add water

Since the dust has settled, the Rogers family have been fortunate to score some big autumn rain that boosted their annual rainfall tally, with the situation looking lean since September 2016.

"We had 100 millimetres of rain in late April and early May and when you live in 300mm rainfall country, to have a third of your average rainfall in a couple of falls certainly has a significant impact and the grasses come on quite well," Mr Rogers said.

The rain is a major financial win for the Rogers family who have been able to stop handfeeding their sheep.

Mr Rogers said the drought had reduced their income by a massive 75 per cent.

"It's very significant, this rain. Most people in this neck of the woods haven't spent tens of thousands of dollars, they've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars feeding their sheep," he said.

It has also meant their merino sheep flock had a natural "wool wash" in the paddock just in time for shearing, which starts next week.

Shearing will be much shorter than usual as they have destocked their sheep flock from about 17,000 head to 6,000 head due to the drought, which started to bite in September 2016.

"Luckily we had that big rain in April and I think they'll all come into the shed quite well," Mrs Rogers said.

"We're looking forward to shearing even though we will only have 30 per cent of what we normally shear, but it'll be good."

Don't let the green flush fool you — drought still lingers

Ever the optimists, the Rogers family still would not claim the drought has broken.

"I wish I could say it was. I think we've got a reprieve," Mrs Rogers said.

"The millennium drought was eight years and we are only in our third year. So it could be [broken], but I think we've only got a reprieve."

"I'd like to hope it was, but I don't think it is," Mr Rogers said.

He said they would need some more decent rain in August and September for the drought to break.

"We've got nice green feed here at the moment, but a couple of weeks of hot windy weather in September and the pastoral conditions will deteriorate fairly quickly," he said.

Ms Hemley agreed. She said while southern New South Wales had better rainfall than most other regions in NSW, the falls were scattered and the drought was not over yet.

"We're really thankful for the rain, but I think statewide we all have our fingers crossed for some more rain," she said.


© ABC 2019

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