Southern dams run dry

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Jenne BrammerThe West Australian
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Farmers in the southern Wheatbelt have seen their dams run to dry, forcing them to cart truckloads of water and sell their sheep at depressed prices into an over supplied market, after extremely dry conditions.

Areas under most pressure include Williams, Wagin, Darkan and north of Kojonup, all of which usually receive generous rainfall during the growing season and are considered to be highly reliable for sheep production.

This year, however, most farms in this region have had less than half their annual average rainfall.

Wagin farmers Andrew and Tegan Scanlon said they had carted 200,000 litres via 13 truck loads of water from the Wagin town site, 23km away, in the past month.

Their dams are normally full at this time of year, but have run dry for the first time in Mr Scanlon's 18 years of farming.

He's had to resort to desperate measures after his farm received just 200mm of rain for the growing season, significantly down on the annual average of 450mm.

Mr Scanlon said 2015 was shaping up to be the equal second-driest year on record in his area.

Department of Agriculture and Food WA research officer John Paul Collins said to be carting water at this time of year was unusual in the southern Wheatbelt.

Mr Scanlon had also been forced to reduce the number of sheep on his property because of the lack of water and pressure on feed supplies.

However, many other farmers in this area are also selling sheep for the same reason, causing a glut on the market and depressing prices.

Mr Scanlon said he recently sold 900 wether lambs for $45 head.

Normally he would sell these in February or later for about $75 each.

"We are also considering selling some of our ewes, but prices are so low that we holding on as long as we can," he said.

Landmark agent Ben Kealy said farmers were offloading sheep to local processors or the livestock export trade, but there was also a market to sell lambs to farmers in other areas of WA that were not under duress. Mr Collins said other farmers in the dry area of the southern Wheatbelt were looking to agist their sheep in other areas of the State where the season had been more favourable.

Mr Scanlon said although the 28mm of rain that arrived at the weekend created a few welcome puddles in dams, it otherwise did more damage than good.

"We have some dry grasses as feed in the paddock, but rain this time of year turns them to mush and washes the nutrients out of the feed," he said.

West Arthur Shire president and Darkan farmer Ray Harrington said his council had recently reviewed and checked all three standpipes in the shire to ensure local farmers could tap into these water sources (two scheme and one underground) and cart water back to their properties. He said some farmers had been searching for their own underground supplies and were sinking bores.

Mr Harrington said while pastures typically provided feed for sheep over the winter and spring months, he was aware of farmers in the area who had to hand-feed their sheep during these months because pasture growth was insufficient.

Mr Collins said harvest in the area was under way and the remaining crop stubbles would provide some feed for a short period when they became available.

He said it was important to have a plan to ensure nutritional requirements for sheep could be met because pressure on feed supplies intensified in summer.

Mr Harrington said the harvest in his area had started far earlier than usual this year.

"Crop yields are likely to be average or below average, and quality is down," he said.

"It is a tough year, but we are keeping it in perspective as this is just a small taste of what the eastern Wheatbelt farmers face for many years at a time," he said.

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