Drought hurting more NSW farmers

By Rick Bayne

FARMERS ARE digging in to survive as the drought in NSW worsens.

But with the vast majority of the state’s farming land in drought conditions and feed and water prices hitting record levels, some farmers are considering their future in the industry.

NSW Department of Primary Industries’ (DPI) Combined Drought Indicator shows 15.3 per cent of the state is in intense drought, 36.4 per cent is experiencing drought and 48.1 per cent is drought affected.

Only 0.1 per cent of the state is described as non-drought and 0.1 per cent as recovering.

Chair of NSW Farmers Dairy Committee and owner of Little Big Dairy Co in Dubbo, Erika Chesworth, said the big dry from Queensland was making its way south. “The dry area is expanding and there’s big pressure on the dairy industry,” she said.

Despite the difficulties and gloomy outlook, Mrs Chesworth urged farmers to maintain their social ties, seek financial counselling and “spend to prevent disaster”.

“It comes back to basic stuff, do the little things properly — don’t carry unproductive animals, look at your reproduction, teat spray, vaccinate.

“I encourage farmers to consider employing a consultant, look at your budget, know your costs and be sociable, that really helps. Have people around and take weekends away; try to keep a balance.

“Some can cope with these pressures better than others. It can depend on what cycle your business is in but generally farmers are negative at the moment.”

While her farm at Dubbo locked into good grain prices at harvest, Mrs Chesworth admitted feed costs were getting “out of control”.

“I’ve heard crazy quotes like $700 a tonne for Lucerne hay; $600 for barley. It’s really gone off the scale.”

There will be crops grown south of West Wyalong this season but farms that don’t have irrigation and aren’t getting rain are under an incredible amount of stress, Mrs Chesworth said.

“A month ago, we were still hopeful of getting late winter rain in this region, not so much now.”

Mrs Chesworth welcomed new government initiatives to help farmers but said they didn’t always go far enough.

“They’ve just put out a freight subsidy on fodder and we’re grateful to everyone who advocated for that, but the cap of $20 000 is a laughable amount; that’s what we were getting 20 years ago. I’m not going to say it’s not helpful but dairies are much larger than they were 20 years ago and there’s a greater dependence on purchased feed.”

The DPI’s Rural Assistance Fund has announced a series of measures to support struggling farmers, including financial counsellors and interest-free loans.

But Mrs Chesworth is under no illusion that most farmers ae doing it tough. “It snuck up on us. Our farm is a one-in-20 year dry. It’s worse than 2006 and that’s quite surprising.”

Finley farmer Neville Kydd said farmers in the area had been going okay “but it’s starting to get to the pointy end”.

“It’s getting to the irrigation season and there’s no irrigation water available and if you go to the trading market they’re indicating 350 a megalitre and rising. Realistically there’s no money in it for dairy farmers at the moment.”

The Kydds have good supplies of silage but Mr Kydd added “that’s not endless”.

“Last time the drought was for three years; we’re at stage one. We’ve got silage on hand but if it’s another three years the reserves will be gone.”

In the 2006 drought the Kydds used palm kernels but they are no longer being imported. “It’s not everything and nutritionists don’t like it, but it sustains animals and extends what you’ve got quite well. It saved our arse last time; we used about 4500 tonnes of it.”

Mr Kydd predicts farmers will be forced to leave the industry.

“It’s not just us; it’s everywhere. The dry is heading further and further south. It needs to rain and rain substantially to put water in the dams but as it looks, that’s unlikely to happen.

“Everybody north of the divide is getting very concerned. Come the middle or later spring, if it doesn’t improve dramatically a lot of people are just going to pull the pin and shut down.

“Quite a few are doing that already.”

NSW Farmers’ Drought Network has launched a page to provide service information, links to assistance and services to those impacted by drought conditions.

NSW Farmers’ President James Jackson welcomed the Government’s additional $500 million in support as ‘generous’ but stressed the importance of the package being easily accessible to all farmers across the state battling drought.

“It’s not only the big costs that affect farm business cash flow. It is the small, ongoing commitments that add up. The commitment to provide relief through deferring LLS rate payments, water licenses and Agricultural Vehicle Registration will benefit local communities and contractors, not only farmers.

“As farmers continue to make tough decisions, we call on the NSW Government to make it equitable and as easy as possible for them to access relief,” Mr Jackson said.