FOR bull breeder Tim Vincent it is a bitter irony that his beloved country can change from drought to flooding rains, and back again, in just a few short months.
His family’s 850ha property outside Gunnedah in northern NSW was like a “little bit of paradise” after last season’s early rains. Today its ragged hills and plains are thick with parched grass, the nutritional value of cardboard, he said.
Mr Vincent, who shares the property with his wife Margaret, their two children and his now-retired parents, has been hand-feeding most of the family’s 450 prime cattle for months.
“I didn’t expect, after we had fences washed out and cattle all over the road in December, that it would change back so quickly,” he said. “Spring is our growing season, but I can tell you there’s not much growing happening here now.”
Mrs Vincent agreed: “Everyone thought we would have at least one or two good years.” Rainfall gauges in nearby Gunnedah recorded barely 250mm in the year to date, compared with an annual average of more than 600mm.
The Bureau of Meteorology puts the chance of making up the difference between now and summer at perhaps 25 per cent.
Even though most dams in the area are almost full, an ugly ochre patch on the NSW Department of Primary Industries agricultural conditions map for last month marks drought in central-northern NSW. Parts of three districts were drought-declared last month, and five more downgraded from satisfactory to marginal.
A spokesman for NSW Primary Industries Minister Katrina Hodgkinson said she was aware small pockets of the state had slipped into drought. “The minister has noted that there are small portions of NSW that have not received the rain that everywhere else has. But in a state as big as NSW you won’t get a good season (for) everyone.”
National Farmers Federation president Jock Laurie said the lack of rain was forcing a rethink for farmers of what crops to plant, as well as forcing hand-feeding of stock in the northwest of NSW.
“There have already been some crop losses out towards the northwest,” Mr Laurie said.
“It’s been on the back of a big wet out in a lot of that country and it’s not unusual after a big wet period that you tend to get a drier period. That’s probably what we are seeing at the moment. “I know that Moree has been a bit dry back out through Walgett, back west of Gunnedah, it’s dry out there. That northwest area, anywhere north of Gunnedah, there’s a big patch out there that has been knocked around.”
Conditions have been dry in northern Victoria this winter, while parts of Western Australia and South Australia received above-average rainfall. Much of WA remains officially in drought.
The BOM predicts central-western Queensland and the southern tip of WA will be wetter than usual this spring, while SA will be drier. “After the very wet March, rainfall in inland parts of southeastern Australia has been below average,” the bureau says. “This continues a trend in recent decades of unusually dry mid-autumn to early-winter conditions to recur in most years.”
Despite the unfavourable conditions, Mr Vincent remained philosophical. “I’ve been in the industry for 40 years, and I know what I’ve got to do to keep the cows in good condition.”
He said he had spent about $40,000 extra on feed in the past few months alone, and could not reduce the size of his herd significantly without undermining the integrity of its breeding stock.
Nevertheless, he remained optimistic: “Hopefully, with a few good summer storms, we’ll get through all right.”