Mid West and Gascoyne drought drives pastoralists to new ends to keep stock alive

Anna CoxMidwest Times
Calves being taught to bottle feed on Challa Station.
Camera IconCalves being taught to bottle feed on Challa Station. Credit: supplied Debbie Dowden

The driest season on record in parts of the Mid West and Gascoyne has forced pastoralists into extreme measures to keep their stock and livelihoods alive.

Debbie and Ashley Dowden are the fifth generation in the family to take over Challa Station, near Mount Magnet, 600km north-east of Perth.

The station is used to 200mm of rainfall per year, but received just 80mm in 2023.

“We’ve never had to do this — it’s the absolute worst and I hope I never have to do it again,” Mrs Dowden said.

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“We haven’t even started to calculate the cost. It’ll cost us hundreds of thousands over the next three to four years.”

The pair were hoping to retire in the coming years.

Last year was the station’s driest year in 30 years, driving the Dowdens to ends they’ve never been to before.

They have begun separating calves so mothers no longer have to produce milk, to reduce pressure on feed.

Usually the station is home to a herd of 1000 cattle, but the Dowdens have had to remove 200 youngsters to greener pastures in Gingin, or in the yard at their home on the station, to bottle feed them by hand.

The land has been in the family since 1888, and last year was the sixth worst year since the station began keeping records in the 1880s.

Mrs Dowden said the excruciating conditions led the deaths of cattle who were too weak to stand or graze, and had to be shot rather than letting them suffer.

“We know what’s coming, and we prepare ourselves for that. We rise to these challenges,” she said.

The Bureau of Meteorology meteorologist Jessica Lingard confirmed 2023 was the driest on record for multiple locations in the Gascoyne, including Shark Bay and Carnarvon.

“Carnarvon picked up just 54mm of rainfall when their average is 222mm. That’s about a quarter of their normal rainfall,” she said.

Shark Bay bay recorded its driest year on record in 2023, receiving just 20mm of rainfall.

The average rainfall for Mount Magnet is 244mm but it saw just 152.2mm fall in 2023.

Owner and pastoralist on Sherwood Station, Harvey Nichols, said the dry “breaks your heart”.

Sherwood Station is located in Meekatharra, and saw 180mm of rainfall for 2023 forcing Mr Nichols to sell 40 of his cattle.

Mr Nichols, who is also the Meekatharra Shire president, didn’t muster for two years, purely to limit the inevitable loss he would have had to cut should he have brought in livestock during the drought.

“The last eight years have been ridiculously dry,” he said.

“I had some cows selling for 20c a kilo. The cost of production is $3 a kilo.”

Mr Nichols said the cost of transporting hay added salt to the wound.

“Well you’re looking at paying the cost of the hay, then double that cost to pay for the freight train to bring it out here,” he said.

A train can cost up to $10,000 to get to Meekatharra.

Despite the devastating conditions Mr Nichols has found himself in for nearly a decade, he can still manage to crack a joke.

“Just means I can’t go on my skiing holiday to Japan,” he said.

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