Farmers still desperate for rain

CORRINA RIDGWAYCountryman

Their crops may look green, but for farmers with stock in regions to the north and east of Esperance, it is proving to be a cruel mirage.

In a landscape known for reliable seasonal rainfall, farmers — particularly those with stock — are desperate for decent run-off falls to fill dams devoid of water for the second consecutive winter.

The extended period of dry has been well documented in the Salmon Gums region, now declared water deficient by the State Government.

Salmon Gums received less than 15mm for June — half of 2010’s monthly total and only marginally better than the driest June recorded, chalked in at 11.2mm in 1944.

Rainfall data for Salmon Gums reveals a worrying total for the year to date — just 154.8mm over 54 days and falling well short of the average 214mm.

It follows a recent drying trend, with 2010 recording 128.8mm over the same period in a string of small falls over 58 days.

Salmon Gums father and son Bob and Troy Burnside have seen the lack of moisture cut their stocking density to just 2000 ewes and 1500 lambs over 4046 hectares of pasture.

“It’s as low as we have been for stock in 30 or 40 years, ” Troy said.

“We have enough acreage to run around 5000 head.”

Properties north of Condingup face a similar fate.

On Macsfield — part of the McDonald Holdings — sheep yards and surrounding paddocks look deceivingly fresh, but on closer inspection a puff of dust trails vehicles up the laneways.

Mick McDonald and family have been forced to pump water to their feedlot after two dry years transformed stock dams into cracking mud holes.

With 6000 ewes on their farm, Mick is hoping for good falls before the end of winter. “Water in our dams is our main concern at the moment, ” Mick said.

“We are pumping (water) three or four kilometres to our feedlot. We probably have another month until that runs out.

“Our last decent run-off fall was 60mm at the end of May 2010. We won’t do another summer here without more.”

Just 30km north of Condingup, Matt Hill of Young Hill Farms said the situation was dire.

Running 5500 Merino ewes and 170 head of Angus cattle, the farm has been carting an average of 60,000 litres of stock water a week since May.

They had been carting internally on farm but sources dried up.

“We have been carting three truckloads a week, ” Matt said.

“Eighty per cent of our dams are dry or useless because of mud. The feed situation is diabolical; we have been hand-feeding hay and grain.”

In Salmon Gums, the Burnsides are still feeding out twice a week.

Although both regions have found temporary relief by drawing water from varying sources, farmers say the alternative sources are not a permanent solution.

The deficiency declaration in Salmon Gums had seen water first sourced and carted from the local quarry and then when that became too low, trucked from Norseman, 97km north.

Condingup farmers have been able to pull from their own community stand pipe sourced from a small aquifer, but that underground source is not infinite and relies on rainfall.

In a search for a longer term solution, the McDonalds will be delving deeper for a possible underground alternative and drilling for decent stock water.

But for others, the search beneath will be a long shot.

At Young Hill, Matt is doubtful whether drilling would be beneficial for their property.

“Historically, we have no known soaks or aquifers, no history of underground water, ” he said.

“We would be lucky to get a fresh pocket among the salt.”

Without the thunderstorms breaking over catchments and with winter rains evaporating into thin air, further cuts to stock programs are possible, but growers are wary of drastically reducing programs in a knee-jerk reaction.

“We would be very reluctant to sell off stock — that would be a worst-case scenario, ” Matt said.

“It all depends on how much it costs to cart water.”

In the meantime, massive operations are underway to clean out silt and mud-caked dams to welcome the rain when it does fall.

During the dry, the Burnsides have cleaned out 60 dams — 40 of those over last summer — while the McDonalds have cleaned out 25 dams this season.

With grim determination, many growers are staying positive and falls of 8–12mm around Salmon Gums in the last week have gone some way to greening paddocks.

Troy Burnside is quietly relieved and hopes to stop hand-feeding within the coming weeks.

Falls of 7mm have seen puddles begin to gather on Young Hill farms and Matt said their stock were living off puddles and on their crops for the time being.

Long-range forecasts predicting a high percentage of rainfall for much of August are offering hope to those in-land, but without rain the next summer will be tough.

“If we get no run-off rainfall, we will be completely dry by early summer, ” Matt said.

“Our worst case scenario is if we get 30–40mm in summer.

“It’s not enough for run off, and with a weed germination would mean a massive spray program.

“Everyone would be drawing water for spraying.”

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