Top drop saves Piawaning farm

Rueben HaleThe West Australian

For Piawaning cattle and sheep producer David Hall, rain has come in the nick of time.

Until the 90mm of welcome rain fell on Mr Hall's Tanglewood sheep and cattle stud on the weekend, he had been staring at the bleak prospect of being forced to sell his livestock.

Mr Hall, who is the stud principal, breeds Merino sheep, Texel and Poll Dorset fat lambs, and Santa Gertrudis and Droughtmaster cattle on his 1380ha broadacre mixed farming property.

The bulk of his livestock have traditionally been sold at the Muchea saleyards and to the live export market.

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Until the rains, a pattern of declining rainfall in the area would have meant his remaining 1500 head of Merino sheep and 400 head of cattle would be sold at below market prices as he made the transition to a total cropping operation.

Mr Hall said last month the situation had become desperate, after his property received only 10mm of rain for the month, which would mean a shortage of drinking water for his stock.

He also said the drought-like conditions on his property had become progressively worse over the past 15 years, with his pastures receiving only about 150mm of rain for the year.

"If it hadn't been for these good rains, we would have been close to running out of feed on the property to keep the stock nourished," he said.

"The cost of feeding my sheep and cattle is ridiculous, particularly with lupins at about $350 a tonne."

"With prices the way they are at the moment, my livestock is not only unprofitable, it's actually a financial liability. Sheep and cattle have to be fed every day and we are not making a profit over and above the high input costs of feeding them at the moment."

WA sheep and cattle prices have been hitting record highs as local processors compete for livestock numbers against live exporters, in an ever tightening market.

Local saleyard prices for sheep have gone up a whopping 63 per cent in three months, with it becoming commonplace for wethers to sell for more than $120 a head.

It is a similar story for the State's cattle, with recent Meat and Livestock Australia projections that cattle prices could rise by as much as 40 per cent on the back of falling cattle numbers and continued strong demand.

Mr Hall said he and other producers in his situation had not shared in the market's good times, with buyers keen to take advantage of their dire situation and beat down prices.

"The buyers work on our disadvantage and don't pass on the savings at farm gate to the retail market," he said.

"I've seen sheep prices as low as $30 a head from producers that have run out of feed.

"The buyers don't realise the cost to produce, maintain and transport the livestock."

Mr Hall said he was now more optimistic about the future of his livestock operation with the rains, but still worried about the likelihood of needed follow-up rainfall.

"Weather-wise, if things go back to what it was just last week in the long term we will still have to get out of livestock because there is just no way can we afford to hang on to our sheep and cattle if we are having to buy in feed," he said.

"The sheep will go first and then we will start winding back on the cattle, because at the moment I am making more out of 100ha of crop than I am making out of sheep."

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