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Tasmania's green drought is no longer green

Eden Hynninen, Friday November 29, 2019 - 18:34 EDT
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Farmers in Tasmania's south are destocking up to 50 per cent of their sheep in dry conditions. - ABC

Farmers in Tasmania's Central Highlands are destocking and hand-feeding their sheep as they continue to battle dry conditions.

Properties surrounding the central town of Bothwell have not seen much-needed rain in many months.

This wool and prime lamb district relies heavily on fodder crops for production, but the lack of rain and expense of irrigation means many farmers are having to buy in grain for feed.

Seventh-generation farmer Will Bignell runs a mixed farming operation with sheep and irrigated crops.

"We're buying in feed which we don't normally do," Mr Bignell said.

"Right now, it's probably the peak of the market to buy. It's in excess of $10,000 a truckload and going through them pretty quick."

He ran out of hay reserves earlier this year.

"Basically we're about 120mm behind on annual rainfall at the moment. We've missed a number of strategic rains that create feed wedges for us," Mr Bignell said.

"Unfortunately, the rains have come in small rainfall events, and we haven't had any soaking rains. As a result our dryland system has had a failed autumn.

"We've come into spring using a farmer's ethos that spring is going to happen, and it hasn't. Bothwell has run itself dry."

Forced to destock sheep

The long dry has meant Mr Bignell has had to destock up to 30 per cent of his sheep.

Luckily, strong lamb prices have helped him pay the bills.

"This helps the service debt and keep the business going and keep people employed and the district ticking over. Without that, it would be really dire," Mr Bignell said.

Tasmanian hay and silage contractor Scott Williams said supplies in the region were down and prices were steadily rising.

"This time last year, we had a late spring rain which really helped, but there will be nowhere near that amount of feed this year," Mr Williams said.

"I would describe the Derwent Valley as still in green drought, and now describe Bothwell as a very burnt drought.

"There's just no green, anything outside of irrigation in Bothwell is just burnt out. I don't think I've ever seen it this bad."

Mr Williams expects hay prices may jump 50 to 60 per cent compared to last year.

"We are needing to price silage this week, but I've heard someone say that he wanted $300 a tonne for it. It's going to expensive for sure," he said.

"We are going to try and keep the price down, to keep it fair on both sides, but it's going to climb up out of our control. I think it might go 20 to 40 per cent dearer, but the season will dictate that."

Irrigation a saviour

Mr Williams said he had noticed over the past four or five seasons, the climate had fluctuated more than ever before.

He said his confidence continued to drop each season and numbers were hard to predict.

"Irrigation and pivot systems really save us, without them we would have been parked up a long time ago," he said.

Bothwell farmer Richard Hallett runs a 9,000-hectare grazing and cropping property outside of Bothwell. He said the 15 per cent of his land under irrigation had also been his saving grace.

Mr Hallett has studied annual rainfall on his property over the past 40 years. He said it's continually dropping.

"It used to be around 460mm, but it's trended down to about 360mm over the past 20 years, and that puts us on par with places like Bourke in New South Wales, which would surprise a lot of people," he said.

While there has been some rain in the west of the state and localised showers in the east, little has reached the middle of Tasmania.

More dry weather forecast

Tasmanian climatologist Ian Barnes-Keoghan predicts a warmer and dryer-than-average summer ahead in Tasmania.

"The western part of the state will likely have more than above-average rain, but most of the state and, in particular the eastern and central areas, will have below-average rain in December," Mr Barnes-Keoghan said.

"That continues and summer overall more likely to be wetter in the west … unfortunately continuing dry through the eastern half of the state."

Mr Bignell said future seasons were looking tough.

"People around the district are really feeling this season," he said.

"We've had a few failed crops already plus any autumn crops are basically a failure. We're not expecting rain for eight months."


© ABC 2019

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