Last week it rained in parts of Queensland's Northwest, Central West and Channel Country, which made the news. Almost two-thirds of the state are currently drought-declared*. Unfortunately, the rainfall was sporadic: while the creeks on some properties are now carrying water for the first time in four years, other graziers looked up in vain at dark clouds that dissipated without delivering the goods.
For the second consecutive 'Wet', the monsoonal rains have failed over northern Queensland. Even last year farmers were doing it tough. A temporary live cattle export ban in 2011 and the subsequent introduction of ESCAS (Exporter Supply Chain Assurance Scheme) – which requires exporters to provide evidence of compliance with internationally agreed animal welfare standards and traceability and control along the supply chain – meant cattle exports to key Asian markets fell off dramatically. This produced a glut of cattle in the domestic market and prices collapsed. Exports were impacted by the high value of the Aussie dollar. Little rain meant a higher risk of bush fires in a region that had only just started to recover from the ravages of what has become known as the Millennium drought**.
Farmers have a reputation – rather like us Poms – for moaning, and those deaf to their complaints point out that drought is a common problem in Australia. This drought is so far-reaching, however, that agistment – whereby graziers move their stock temporarily to alternative pasture – hasn't been an option.
Queensland has a long history of raising cattle for beef, and is proud of its tradition. I still remember a steak I ate in the state's 'beef capital', Rockhampton, in June 2010. Right now, however, graziers in far western Queensland are shooting their animals because there is no food left for them. Anyone making a living off the land in Outback Australian has a hard life, especially during drought or flooding rains. People get used to killing ferals or putting wounded animals by the roadside out of their misery. But having to shoot many of your own starving cattle must be a particularly grim task.
Stock management is especially important in a business with marginal profitability. Some graziers foresaw difficulties ahead and destocked; stockpiling feedstuff is essential, if you can afford it. A National Drought Policy can establish a longer-term approach to the problem. But right now, farmers need water and food for their cattle. If your nearest neighbour is way beyond cooee and they're in just as dire straights as you are, it might help a bit if some kind strangers turned up to lend a hand and brought a truckload of hay with them. Those of us sitting pretty in the city can actually help with this. Buy a bale or two, or, if you're not working or you're retired, go and spend time in an extraordinary landscape doing whatever you can – see here and here.
Tragically, stories are emerging of farmers who, unable to sell stock in poor condition, have taken their own lives as well as those of their animals. Applying for a government farm finance package or the drought assistance measures currently in place may not be enough to help those who are struggling most. Federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce says there's no quick fix, especially as his government is reassessing the National Drought Policy, which could take up to a year. Queensland's Agriculture Minister John McVeigh encourages graziers to hang on in there: economists are predicting better beef prospects in the global market towards the end of the year.
Minister McVeigh has been touring the state's drought-affected areas, and on ABC Brisbane radio yesterday he declared that if there isn't a 'decent amount' of rain over the next month, there will be 'significant drought circumstances'. I would imagine many grazers in Queensland believe their circumstances have already reached the level of exceptional. In the absence of emergency feed drops or other rapid-result measures, however, we're all just have to keep rain dancing. And buying a bale or two.
* Drought is defined by the Bureau of Meteorology as when rainfall during a three-month period is in the lowest decile of rainfall amounts previously recorded in the region
** This began in Queensland in 1991 but had spread to most of Australian by the mid-90s. By 2003 the drought was hailed as the worst on record. It continued throughout most of the noughties, only starting to ease in some areas in 2009