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Future for fine wool on the line as drought grips Queensland's Traprock

By Pip Courtney, Saturday March 14, 2020 - 17:02 EDT
ABC image
Brent Finlay and his father Scott examine merino wool in their shearing shed. - ABC

Fine wool worth more than $500,000 a bale is a fading memory in Queensland's Traprock region, where its quickest, fiercest drought ever has decimated merino flocks.



In 2019, the region recorded its lowest rainfall in more than a century and the year finished with a searing hot, windy summer.

One of Australia's best known fine wool areas, it is facing what some believe is the biggest threat to its future since the Reserve Price Scheme collapsed in the early 1990s.

Woolgrower Brent Finlay was forced to truck in water for his sheep when 22 of his 24 dams dried up.

With crippling grain and water bills, he made the hard decision to sell 5,000 of his 7,000 sheep.



"In hindsight I should have sold more, but I'm glad I sold as many as I did," he said.

Apart from bleating sheep chasing the feed truck, the Finlays' farm was eerily silent.

"A lot of the native animals vanished or perished, and we started to see dead birds on the ground ... they starved because their whole ecosystem was starting to break down," Mr Finlay said.

"It was just so quiet."



Farmers have always regarded the Traprock area as reliable country and were shocked at the severity and speed of last year's drought.

"I thought the '90s were bad — we had 15 years of drought — but they were not droughts compared to last year," woolgrower Clive Smith said.

Italy has long been the top buyer of Traprock wool, but last year the Italians passed on Mr Smith's bales because drought had downgraded the quality.

Months of long days feeding grain and carting water also had an effect on his mental health.

"During that whole process of feeding, I ran over six sheep," he said.

"The rest of the day is hopeless after that, because you are just putting your soul into keeping them alive and one runs under a wheel.

"It's only one sheep when you have 6,000, but mentally they were the hardest days."



Destocking in the thousands

Neighbour David Bartlett had his lowest recorded rainfall in 159 years.

He's destocked his 17,000 sheep.

"Once we made our mind up to destock, there was no going back — we just stuck at it and it took us three months to get rid of everything.

"It was a great feeling to see the last truck go out the gate, because before that we were feeding 10,000 or 12,000 three times a week."

Mr Bartlett and his son Matt are planning for the future, building a 35-kilometre cluster fence to keep wild dogs out and stop kangaroos devouring precious pasture.

At $10,000 per kilometre, it's expensive.

"Even if it's a lot lower rainfall, we'll still see a better response from the country," Matt Bartlett said.



The Goodrich brothers made world headlines in 2004 when a Chinese buyer paid $675,000 for a bale of their wool.

At 11.9 microns, it was the finest ever tested.

Last year, Bim Goodrich sold half of his flock of 15,000, and with a miserable lambing rate of 10 per cent, he will have few replacement sheep.

To reduce his reliance on wool, he planted an orchard of high-value Queen Garnet plums, but the warm winter meant poor flower set and a dismal summer crop, the second in a row.



A future in peril

Despite some recent rain, dams are still not full and some farmers are still grain-feeding.

Building up flock numbers when the drought does break will be difficult.

Many of the studs from which Traprock producers buy young sheep have been in drought too and won't have many to sell.



With the sheep meat market booming, competition for these scarce merinos will be fierce.

"I can't see how we can spend a couple of hundred dollars on a wether when it's only producing, say, $70 of gross income," Mr Goodrich said.

"I just don't know what we're going to do."

Mr Smith and Mr Finlay won't be buying young sheep this year.

Mr Finlay believes it's inevitable some wool producers will quit the industry.

"This is a region that used to run 350,000 sheep 20 years ago, and now I'd be surprised if there's 30,000 left," he said.

"I think we'll have a far smaller industry.

"I don't see it going back and that's why people [should] do their sums very carefully, very clearly, to see if there's actually a future in it."



Watch this story on ABC TV's Landline on Sunday at 12:30pm or on .


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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