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Gippsland farmers are struggling through a green drought and say outsiders 'don't understand'

Peter Somerville, Friday November 15, 2019 - 13:23 EDT
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A "green drought" has the landscape looking green, but there's no substance in the ground. - ABC

Gippsland farmers in their third year of drought are estimated to have lost as much as 70 per cent of their regular income.



The situation is now described as a "green drought", where paddocks look green from a distance, however pasture growth is hamstrung by low rainfall and grass growth is stymied by weeds.

Rodwells Sale agronomist, Casey Willis, said these weeds had limited nutritional value.

"A green drought is a drought through the wintertime where we have a green cover but there's no actual growth coming from any desirable pasture species," Ms Willis said.

"A lot of what's being grown in paddocks at the moment is weeds and they have little to no nutritional value for stock.

It looks green, but there's no growth coming from anything desirable."

Ms Willis said the region had not had enough rainfall to form any runoff, so dams were dry and farmers were relying on bore water to fill up stock troughs.

Rain not enough to change fortunes

Affected parts of Gippsland have received good rainfall over the past week, however one event was not considered enough to change fortunes.

"I wouldn't say it's enough to change much," Ms Willis said.

"Prior to the rain crops were wilting and were frost affected, so the recent rain would have picked up those crops and given them some relief and growth, but we need a lot more rain to say that it's going to change anything.

"The soil is still very dry and there's not much in the profile at all."



Flynn farmer and Gippsland stock agent Colin Stockdale said his property had received late spring rain, but had missed out on an autumn break over the last three years.

His paddocks now have a green tinge with short, green feed resulting from an earlier sowing. However the pastures were competing with weeds.

He said the same paddocks were so dry just a few months ago that the topsoil was blowing away in the wind.

Outsiders 'don't understand' the reality

"I don't think people understand what's going on when they drive past," Mr Stockdale said.

"What we are experiencing is a lot of natural weed which has taken the place of grass that has died out through the dry period over the last few months when we didn't have anything."

Mr Stockdale said many of his clients sold off cattle early when the feed situation became tight.

He said those who had managed to keep their cattle were now finding that the cost of feeding them had doubled since last year.

"Feed costs have doubled. We feed a lot of pellets to cattle; our pellets are $480 to $500 a tonne, whereas last year they could have been $100 less than that. In some cases … hay would normally be $60 a round but it's advertised this week at $160 a round," he said.

Mr Stockdale said it took one tonne of pellets to turn off just one heavy steer.

"One round bale of hay will feed 20 to 25 cows with calves at foot, and that's every day. So if you want to say it's worth $150 to $160 at the moment and you're pouring that into 30 cows per day, but some people have probably got 200 cows a day at that cost."



Groups like the Heyfield Lions Club have stepped up to help struggling farmers.

The club runs the Supporting Gippsland Farmers program, which coordinates the distribution of donated hay to farmers who are doing it tough.

Program coordinator Ray Akers described the green drought as "shocking".

He said the tough conditions on-farm were also having flow on effects in small towns with less money flowing into local businesses.

Affected area is growing

"[Early on] the first demand was from an area from Yarram right through to Bairnsdale and beyond, taking in Briagolong and Seaton," Mr Akers said.

"That area is now moving down further west into Glengarry, into the Latrobe Shire and even further over to Gormandale."

Mr Akers said the ground in the area was dry and expected spring to be disappointing.

"We're facing up for another bad year. We will definitely be trying to help people through spring and summer, but we need donations," he said.

"We are sourcing hay now from some of the areas that look like they're going to have a good spring. A lot of the farmers are a great support to us, whether we just pay baling costs, or buy at a reasonable price."

While the club aims to help farmers, the volunteers don't pay market price for the hay.

They say it helps avoid distorting the market and making the situation even worse for Gippsland's already struggling farmers.


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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