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Supplement feed shortage puts a strain on farmers already struggling with drought

By Emilia Terzon, Tuesday September 25, 2018 - 09:09 EST
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Molasses is a by-product of the sugar industry and is fed to animals during times of drought. - ABC

It's the last thing drought-declared Queensland graziers need, but dry conditions are now affecting the production of a wide range of feed supplements given to animals when grass and hay run low.

Central Queensland supplier Tony Newman imports supplements including molasses and cottonseed to his Bouldercombe facility near Rockhampton from primary producers in southern parts of Australia.

He said he has recently had to turn away farmers wanting to buy from him because he doesn't have enough to sell.

"If you take everyone on, you run out sooner and can't supply anyone," Mr Newman said.

"It's very hard to say no.

"Normally you can offer options, but this year, it's hard to even offer options.

"You can hear it in their voices.

"You do become a little bit, I wouldn't say a counsellor, but you share their pain."

Molasses is a brown syrupy by-product of the sugar industry and is commonly mixed with proteins and urea before it is fed to cattle as a lick.

Drought-declared grazier and local AgForce representative, John Baker, runs about 3,500 head of cattle on his station at Middlemount, three hours from Rockhampton.

He has fed molasses to his cattle since July but only has a fortnight's worth of supply left.

"It is a big concern and a big worry to a lot of people," he said.

Molasses may have to be imported

This month, Mr Baker went to sugar mills in the Mackay region to buy molasses directly, but came back empty handed.

One of the state's biggest sugar producers, Mackay Sugar, has made lots of the brown syrup this year, but it is all being sent overseas to fulfil the company's export contracts.

In a statement, Mackay Sugar said dry conditions had hit its harvest this year, with its forecast declining from 5.1 million tonnes to 4.8 million tonnes.

"To ensure there is sufficient molasses to cover the contracts in place and allocations to growers this year, there has been no excess molasses that can be offered outside of these contracts," a spokesperson said.

GrainCorp, which manages the sale of Mackay Sugar's molasses to local farmers, has also been experiencing very high demand for several months.

"We are working with suppliers and industry members to explore other products that could support the farmer during this challenging time," GrainCorp said in a statement.

John Baker has joined with other local graziers to try and import molasses back into Australia.

He said it was a last-ditch resort he has not had to contemplate in years.

If it fails, Mr Baker said they will have a "big problem".

"The other energy source is dry lick blocks but … we're having the same problem with [the ingredients for] them as well," Mr Baker said.

Other supplements running low too

Hay, grain and cottonseed have been in short supply across Queensland and New South Wales for a while.

Tony Newman said major corporation Cargill cancelled his supply of cottonseed hull in August, giving him just one month's notice midway through his contract.

He should have had enough of the protein powder to last until April, but is down to his very last 50-tonne container of what he calls the "gold dust".

"It's a very popular protein meal for supplementing cattle," Mr Newman said.

"We could have sold 10 times over what we've had in protein meal to producers, but once again we had to say no.

"The agents we deal through moved heaven and earth to ensure we can get a replacement commodity in soybean meal."

In a statement, Cargill's spokesperson Peter McBride said the company's cottonseed meal and cotton hull supply had also been hit by the dry conditions.

"Due to drought there is little liquidity in the Australian cottonseed market as farmers and ginners hold onto their cottonseed," Mr McBride said.

"Hence we are not crushing the volumes the market demands, or indeed, we would like."

Concerns prices will rise further

Tony Newman said the situation with supplement feeds was so desperate, he has brought in almond seed meal from Victoria to Queensland for the very first time.

He normally sources from New South Wales and said the freight trains required have added to already rising costs.

"You can't cart anything around Australia for free," he said.

"Unfortunately we have to pass it on [to farmers]."

Mr Newman said he was particularly concerned about what would happen to prices once existing contracts — which have a fixed price per tonne — end, and he is forced to buy supplements on the open market.

"Just like everybody, we're praying for rain," he said.

"That may ease demand a bit but more importantly put crops in the ground.

"Because if there's no crops in the ground, there's no supply, so everybody will be paying excessive rates to source the commodities they need."

The Bureau of Meteorology recently released a grim outlook for farmers, .

In a statement, the Federal Department of Agriculture said its $1.8 billion drought package would help primary producers pay for silos to store feeds and fodder.


© ABC 2018

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