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The Northern Myth

Jan 5, 2014

When drought stalks the land, graziers become rent-seekers and bone collectors

Bad news from the west - Western Queensland: Pasture condition is generally poor across the area and stock are requiring supplements. Stock condition is generally poor across the area. An increasing number of livestock are in a condition that is less than required for trucking

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This photo was posted in the past day or so by “Beck” at the “Ringers From the Top End” (RFTTE) Facebook page.

Beck made the following comment about the photo:

I decided to put this photo so people can get an idea of how bad the drought is. This is one of the many “bone heaps” we have around our places. Here there are actually 13 carcasses from a period of 5 days.

A main watering hole is drying up and each day you have to do a round trip of about 16 km both in the morning and the afternoon to pull poor weak stock out of the mud.

Beck launched into a spray that appeared to blame just about everyone and thing from overseas aid, the lack of media attention and city folks’ ignorance for why things were so crook for graziers in western Queensland.

About half-way through her spray she made this comment, that gives a better indication of the real problems that face graziers in far western Queensland.

We haven’t had enough good seasons to prepare us for the number of droughts and the length of droughts we are continually facing.

For mine that comment says it all. If the arid-zone country of western Queensland cannot sustain grazing activity from year to year, through drought and good seasons both, then it seems environmentally foolhardy and financially irresponsible  to keep flogging a dead horse.

Or in this case hundreds if not thousands of dead cattle.

This is another photo of a beast in distress at a watering point at the RFTTE Facebook page. Attached is a chillingly similar message of blame and desperation to that told by Beck.

Again, the fault apparently lies elsewhere than in the hands of a grazier  who may have stayed in the wrong place for too long.

This drought is different to many others, as it falls on the back of the destruction of cyclone Yasi, the government’s destruction of Live Export Trade and a struggling financial economy.

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of graziers have a huge financial burden and even in the better years, most struggle to make ends meet due to the rising costs of production, wages, fuel, rates & land rent and having no control over the price of the product that they produce.

It is time for Australia to recognise what is happening to our Primary Industry and do something about it before it is all too late.

This needs to be addressed by the media, for the government to listen. The media will only address it if every day people like you & I make some noise. We need to share this post on Facebook, follow links for news, give support where we can and try to get this issue into the face of the media.

This image is of the Queensland areas declared as drought-stricken as at late October 2013.

While the doom and gloom of the current situation is not bad enough, it will only get worse if seasonal rains don’t arrive soon. Here is the prediction from the second Facebook post.

If it does not rain over the next six weeks, these rural producers have no possible means of getting an income to survive and no possible means of assisting their livestock to survive.

The government has a drought package that is designed to help drought stricken graziers who still might have some money.

They offer a 50% rebate of freight on feed or lick for livestock which can be claimed after the invoices have been paid, but no subsidy on the actual feed itself.

They offer a 50% rebate on water infrastructure installed for drought affected livestock however this can also only be claimed after the initial investment from the property owner.

They offer concessional loans, but only to those in a good equity position with their own banks.

It seems now inevitable to every grazier that you speak to that without some assistance there is not (sic) future for them in the grazing industry or anyone else who wants to follow in their footsteps.

This last sentence gives some indication at least that a rather harsh reality may finally be biting in the far west – that graziers may have to stop grazing cattle and find some more sustainable use for their land.

For many families the changes in climate – the current drought follows a failed 2012/2013 monsoon and occurs in a normal, rather than an El Niño year – may signal the end of viable pastoral activities across vast arid-zone swathes of Queensland and the Northern Territory. And, despite the efforts of the National Party’s agrarian socialists, the Abbott government may be less inclined to throw more good money after bad to support the more marginal arid-zone pastoral enterprises.

As this Bureau of Meteorology graphic shows, south-western Queensland has a particularly severe rainfall deficiency that reaches back to late 2012.

The Queensland Government’s Drought Situation Report pages painted an equally gloomy picture for the future of grazing as at 1 December 2013.

Livestock, pastures and water

Overall summary

With the exception of the Darling Downs, most of the areas west of the Great Divide are experiencing poor pasture conditions and limited surface water supplies … Stock condition reflects the quality and quantity of pasture. The condition of stock ranges from poor to fat condition across the State. Most critical in condition are stock from western areas and the south east of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Lactating stock are generally in the poorest condition.

The large numbers of stock sold from the dry areas of the State, as well as from interstate has created a significant downward trend in price. Surface water remains low in areas more than 200 km west of the eastern coastline.

For the west of the state the prognosis is close to disastrous.

Western Queensland

Pasture condition is generally poor across the area and stock are requiring supplements.

Stock condition is generally poor across the area. An increasing number of livestock are in a condition that is less than required for trucking … On some properties calving and lambing has commenced. Early weaning has commenced some properties to reduce the impact on cows. Some producers continue to destock where practical, however demand for stock in poorer condition remains low.

Surface water remains at low to very low levels across the majority of the area with localised flows occurring in most streams and rivers this summer. Surface water quality is deteriorating with storages showing signs of significant algal growth.

Both of the RFTTE posts referred to above have received voluminous responses – Beck’s has more than 1,200 comments, almost 9,500 shares and a more than 5,000 likes. Overwhelmingly the comments are supportive of Beck’s pleas for more government support, media attention and hand-wringing sympathy for the lot of the poor graziers.

Comments in response to anyone wanting to protest against these commonly held views are scathing and abusive.

Even the New Years Eve fireworks cop a serve – highlighting the Country v City tone of many of the comments.

What few if any of the RFTTE comments questioned was the apparent god-given entitlement of graziers to keep flogging this country within – and perhaps now well past – the realistic carrying capacity and sustainable yield of the land.

Maybe it is time to start that conversation.

Robert Gosford —

Robert Gosford

Likes birds and people, not necessarily in that order.

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24 thoughts on “When drought stalks the land, graziers become rent-seekers and bone collectors

  1. Gillian Fennell

    Thanks for writing this article Bob Gosford, I see you have researched the issue and written a very well thought-out article, and I have to say I agree with you on some points, however, your comments regarding a more sustainable use for the land are I think, a little misguided. You see, having been born and bred in Western Qld and now residing in an even more arid area of Australia, I would have to say that when it comes to large-scale rangleland beef cattle production, there is no better country than Australia. You refer to marginal arid-zone pastoral enterprises, these are very productive & profitable if managed appropriately. Calling for the cessation of an industry that employs thousands of people and makes millions of dollars simply because of a few bad years is neither helpful nor rational. I don’t presume to have all the answers nor do I disagree with the Qld graziers choice to raise awareness for their situation. You want to make the land more productive & sustainable? The majority of arid pastoral enterprises are just that. Would you have us all abandon our homes & livelihoods to make the entirety of arid-zone Australia a giant national park? Which is about all the land is good for if it’s not being used to graze stock. And one more thing – before you pass judgement on the decisions made by some graziers you need to know – being on the land for most people is a calling, a vocation. A lot of people have taken great risks and made great sacrifices to take on the onerous task of being both a custodian & protector of the land and a producer of some of the finest food in the world. We take our responsibility to the land and the feeding of the nation very seriously. For many, being entrusted with the land that has been passed through the generations of their families is both a great honour and a terrible burden. No one wants to be the one that sold up the family farm, and many will do anything in order to survive. A little compassion and empathy is called for here – not finger pointing and blame. We are not just talking about money here – we are talking about people’s lives, homes, families and hertiage.

  2. Boerwar

    Having endured droughts as a kid on the farm I have much empathy for both the cattle and the people involved in this colossal tragedy. I well recall the ever-mounting toll of despair, through intense pressure on families, parents, marriages and kids, up to and including the suicide of our neighbour who shot himself in his shed.

    What can we reasonably say about the situation in Queensland?

    The first is that I have been predicting that the first global warming refugees in Australia would be Australian primary producers – not inhabitants of island nations. This has come to pass. First cab off the rank have been some wheat growers in the more marginal areas of the Western Australian wheatbelt. It looks as if some northern cattlement will be next cab off the ranks.

    There is a certain irony to this, of course. Sociologically, as a group, less formally-educated, older, white, rural males are much more likely to be climate denialists than any other single segment of the Australian population. They seem to think that global warming is an ideological trick.

    The thing is, climate dynamics don’t give a stuff what any individual, or any group of individuals, thinks about socialism, capitalism, christianity or atheism. The dynamics will respond to whatever physical and chemical inputs they get. In this case it is extra energy gained by the system by way of the greenhouse effect of CO2. Where it all goes, and how it sorts itself out in the long run is complicated. The fact it is going to stuff us all around to a considerable extent is pretty straightforward, because it has started doing it already.

    It is interesting that both Beck, and some of the farmers who walked off their land in WA, are saying, between the lines, something’s different in their lived experience of climate.

    Where to from here?

    G Fennell is quite right to point out that it is either raise cattle or earn nothing from that country. (putting aside carbon sequestration.)

    With more and more energy in the system having to go somewhere, and with the rain bands travelling polewards, and with greater uncertainty in terms of regional rainfall and temperature patterns, all agriculture is going to have to become increasingly agile.

    With respect to tropical grazing systems, and the possibility/likelihood of more prolonged droughts, this is going to mean that the industry has to adapt to very rapid destocking and restocking combined with some canny new ways of feed management. If this does not quite fit the current cattle and feed management systems, current financial arrangements – including taxation arrangements and borrowing arrangements – current governance arrangements, the current ownership patterns and the current market arrangements, then the latter will all have to change.

    That is essentially the set of decisions we have made by giving up on managing CO2 emissions. Either/Or.

    These changes will necessarily have to involve co-operation between city and country folk. Both sides will have to give in a grand compromise. Both sides will have to start talking nicely to each other to work out some sort of win-win.

    From my perspective, I would like to see country folk compromise on the following: show some respect for biodiversity by supporting national parks and other measures to ensure that Australian species stop going extinct, including by supporting real reform to the environmental tragedy that is the Murray Darling Basin.

    In return, I would be happy for some of my city taxes to underpin a complete restructure of the arid and rangeland grazing industry to enable graziers to prosper in the face of the additional uncertainties they are going to have to manage in the coming decades. The changes will have to be large. They will be hugely disruptive. They will involve a social and economic stepchange.

    There are some sleepers in this discussion. It is not just about drought.

    For example, I assume that the large shrubs in Beck’s picture are Parkinsonia, that they are doing quite well, and that they will take advantage of the drought-related over-grazing, as well as the lack of management resources, to cover yet more grazing country. As with Parkinsonia, so with many, many weeds in a warming world.

    Down our way, St John’s Wort is going berko.

  3. Ken Dally

    Gillian, as an ex farmer myself I understand much of the frustration and heartache you feel. My family had been in horticulture since the 1870’s but we had to face facts and make the hard decision to get out about 18 years ago. Just when we were really making some headway in expansion to become more viable the 80’s droughts hit followed by multiple years of heavy hail that wiped out crops after 6 months of hard work and expense to grow them. We weren’t big enough to be too big for the bank to lose and the prospect of another year or two of negative income wasn’t an option. As it was after selling we had not much more left than for my parents to build a house.

    It’s only become more difficult in the industry with only the big players still around and most of them have diversified into some cattle etc for some of there land. Australia is getting drier, our records going back to my great grandfather clearly show this and the extremes from wet to dry are getting more extreme. As horticulture and broadacre crops have had to change with different crops and varieties while using less water, for cattle to survive it may be to diversify, or running fewer stock on larger parcels of land. Also despite public conception agriculture in Australia doesn’t and never has had the same level of subsidisation that mining and manufacturing have had, especially mining. However no amount of subsidy is going to help if there’s just no water.

    In today’s world the concept of farming as a vocational calling just doesn’t work. The economics is just too tight. Alternative crops and livestock just have to looked at as with any other business. And we can use most of the land we do today but the mix of what we grow must and will change.

  4. Michelle Finger

    It is great that everyone is starting to question how farming/grazing is carried out in Australia, thanks Mr Gosford.
    However, these discussions would do much better if they remained purely business and environmental based, and any personal attacks left completely out of it. These are PEOPLE first, farmers second.
    To clarify, I am a central QLD grazier myself.

    Just like anyone else, when their homes, businesses and entire way of life are under threat, farmers understandably fight as hard as they can to preserve these things … though if it doesn’t turn out right, this can lead to terrible environmental and animal suffering. To say that farmers should ‘nobly’ ‘know when to quit’ and walk away from it all, well ahead in time, is a very ill-informed, unreasonable and frankly unfair expectation. And also it would not change anything. Someone else would take up their land and eventually end up in the same predicament.

    Yes, change is sorely needed. The entire industry, the ‘system’, needs to change – and this is not necessarily the fault of the INDIVIDUAL farming person – nor is it within their power to make these changes.

    When QLD grazers talk of ‘not having enough good years to save in preparation for the bad years’, they are NOT simply referring to the weather. It’s referring to a wide range of issues that have effected this industry in the last few years, and others that have long plagued the industry and seem to be worsening. Sudden ban on live export, high Australian dollar, whatever it is that keeps holding the farm-gate price of our products down while the supermarket shelf price, and the price of our inputs all continue to rise … these sorts of things … on top of unfavorable weather. These are all areas which are totally outside of the control of the individual, and we need some real LEADERSHIP and brave, creative thinking from the industry bodies, banks, supply chain, and government to address these issues.
    And I don’t think that selling up all the farms to major corporations, or to foreign owners, will do anything positive for our people, lands or animals. Corporate head-offices are interested only in profits. Family farmers, while of course they’d like to make a profit, are mostly in it for the love of it – these are the people who I want as the stewards of our countryside.

    It am not pretending that farmers are without fault, they are humans after all. But whatever your opinion of them or their management may be – these are PEOPLE – and those going through drought conditions are down enough already – it is just not right to kick them now. Knowledgeable, constructive suggestions for a way forward would be welcome – but personal attacks are not helpful at best – and those suffering , whether you feel they deserve it or not – right now – they need support, not more negativity. Yes, questions DO need to be asked about the way we conduct agriculture in this country, but we CAN approach the subject with some tact and understanding.

    It needs to be understood that while de-stocking may sound like the simple and obvious solution – this is not an easy one to carry out under any circumstances, and has been extra difficult in the current situation. Cattle are the only source of income for these families. To get rid of their core breeding cattle is a very difficult, risky decision. When the drought breaks, re-stocker cattle prices will be many, many times higher than what they are have to sell them for in drought, and breeding up numbers to a financially viable point takes many, many years.
    Besides all this, de-stocking in many cases simply has not been possible. From VERY early on in this dry the market was so poor, and the distances are so vast, that it was COSTING more money to try to sell cattle then what they were getting for them. That’s right, sell several hundred head – and get a BILL. Moving stock to greener pastures has not been an option either – this drought is so extensive that there simply aren’t any. For many, even the early options were only to shoot their stock, or let them at least have a chance and hope like hell that it rains. It didn’t. In many parts, it still hasn’t.

    Particularly in the face of an ever-increasing human population (which is the giant elephant in the room that no one is game to acknowledge and is too difficult to deal with), it is a BACKWARDS step to suggest that much of the drought-affected land is simply ‘unsuitable’ for farming/grazing.
    Long before ‘climate change’, Australia’s climate has been characterised by cycles of ‘boom’ and ‘bust’. Even ‘marginal’ areas CAN be highly productive when the seasons are favourable – and this resource is too valuable to be left unutilised. However, when the ‘boom’ is over, production must be scaled back (or even ceased altogether) so as not to cause environmental degradation. (Note – some is, but much of the drought declared land is NOT ‘marginal’.)
    Additionally, we need to ensure that land managers persist in these areas, because unfortunately our lands are not pristine anymore. Introduced species abound and ecosystem balances have been thrown out. The environment can no longer simply look after itself – money and management are now required to manage these problems. There are some select areas that – with adequate funding and management – should be made into National Parks. However locking up vast areas – that the government cannot afford to maintain – is just not a valid concept.

    Personally, as a grazier, I think Australia needs a whole new approach to Agriculture.
    In amongst a myriad of complex issues and differing opinions, one thing is blatantly obvious: WHAT WE ARE CURRENTLY DOING IS NOT WORKING. We have amongst the most innovative, efficient, productive agriculture in the world – yet rural debt is higher than ever, we are unable to cope with our fluctuating climate, our lands are becoming increasingly degraded, our food security is being degraded, and our farmers are battling depression. And tragically, too many are losing this battle.

    Is this all the fault of the individual farmer? Of course not. I think the trouble stems from our failure, as a nation, to fully recognise what a farm is and how it DIFFERS from other types of business. A farm is the direct harvesting of products from the current environment (versus the past environment, as in mining). A farm is RELYANT on the environment, climate and seasons. As such, it is dynamic and often unpredictable. Land is a finite resource, whilst the human population is exploding. People are RELYANT on the environment for the production of food and other ecosystem services (water, clean air etc). Farms cover more than 60% of our land surface… We need a whole new way of thinking about farms …

    There’s a lot of talk about the viability of farm businesses, and mostly we’re looking at it from the wrong angle.
    The VIABILITY of a farm, as opposed to other businesses, should be measured by its sustainability (the ability of the land to produce into the future) … NOT by its monetary profit margin.
    Farm managers should be judged, not by their ability to create wealth, but by the efficiency and sustainability of their practices.

    In the current situation, as the cost of living and inputs continue to rise – and particular rising in a rate that is outrageously un-balanced with any rise in the price received for raw produce – farmers must increase both their efficiency and quantity of production in order for their businesses to survive. This can be achieved – TO A POINT – beyond which the tax on the environment becomes unsustainable – causing environmental degradation and leaving the farmer with no way of increasing his income to keep ahead of the rising costs.
    The ‘economy of scale’ theory is only a temporary fix as even the largest of farms will encounter this problem … eventually.

    Therefore, if our farms are to be productive and sustainable into the eternal future – they must be supported.
    This is particularly so given the highly variable nature of Australia’s climate.

    Currently, Australian farms are amount the least supported in the world. And while we battle to compete in a so-called ‘free market’ that is filled with produce that is heavily subsidised or that doesn’t adhere to our (comparatively) high standards of environmental regulation, animal welfare or worker’s conditions … some argue that Australia subsidizes its agriculture through land degradation.

    Is this the fault of the individual farm manager? Of course not. They, like everyone else, are simply trying maintain a viable business in the face of increasing pressures and competition. The current model of agriculture has individual farms operating as separate entities and attempting to maintain financial viability on their own, in the face of so many things that are completely beyond their control. This is not allowing the dynamic and flexible management required to sustainably cope with Australia’s highly variable climate. This is an area that calls for fundamental policy leadership.

    Both the individual and the government’s response to environmental fluctuations (including drought) need to be more pro-active rather than re-active, and quicker to take action when required.

    We need a model for agriculture that enables a lower-level of efficient, environmentally sustainable production and that keeps the land managers on-site performing their most essential role as environmental stewards.
    We need a co-ordinated, co-operative, supportive approach that allows lands experiencing a natural ‘bust’ cycle (drought, cyclone, flood, fire etc) to temporarily lower or cease production altogether, to avoid environmental damage – WITHOUT the land managers enduring financial ‘bust’.
    In the case of the cattle industry, those who need to de-stock need to be supported and encouraged to do this, and it needs to happen earlier. While perhaps those outside of the drought areas should be encouraged to shift their operations from the production of beef product, to the breeding and preservation of the national herd, in order to facilitate a more rapid recovery for all.

    A model like this, while not achieving the peak possible production, will ensure on-going food supply and environmental sustainability into the future, and still contribute significantly to the economy and employment.
    It’s a bit like the story of the “Goose that laid the Golden Eggs” … if we get carried away and kill the goose, there will be nothing left for anyone … however if we all contribute to looking after the goose, it will continue to provide for us all into the future.

    Again, farm ‘viability’ should be measured in environmental, NOT financial sustainability. It’s not an easy idea.
    It will be harder to measure, difficult to balance the ‘correct’ level of production and may be impossible to achieve without support … but what choice do we have?

    Again, farmers suffering through drought are already down enough, there is no need to kick them.
    The future of farming/grazing is an important subject that needs to be discussed, but please, the discussions can be done tactfully.

    Thank you for taking the time to read my comment.


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