Brian Hughes’ cattle would have starved to death by now had he not moved them to another farm 1200 kilometers from his station.
In an AAP report published on The Australian, the Georgetown grazier’s dams are now nothing but cracked earth and straw turned grass. This has prompted Mr. Hughes to drive most of his starving stock south to feed.
“I don’t even know how many I have left (on my land),” Mr. Hughes tells AAP.
“It’s real bad at the moment – as bad as it’s been. There’s just no grass and we’re running out of water fast.”
Mr. Hughes may have to move his 1400 cattle again as the silent, relentless drought creeps south.
Many farmers are fraught with more than 60% of the state officially drought declared. Mr. Hughes said things were never this bad on his 28,000 hectare property since the 1980’s.
“We’ve got dams drying out now that never went dry in those years,” he said.
Charles Burke, the chief executive of Queensland’s peak rural body Agforce, says some farmers in the northwest haven’t seen decent rain for almost two years. Mr. Burke describes the situation as “desperate and critical”.
“In some of these areas we probably can’t expect to get significant rain until Christmas.”
Droughts drive up production costs because cattle have to be moved, and feed has to be shipped in however this drought is squeezing farmers a lot harder than previous dry spells because cattle prices have also plunged.
Some are blaming the high Australian dollar, most point to a slump in the live cattle export trade to Indonesia which has flooded the domestic market.
A current affairs program uncovered horrific animal cruelty in Indonesian abattoirs and sparked a temporary ban on live exports to the country in 2011. The ban was lifted months later however Indonesia reduced its annual import quota from 660,000 head to 260,000.
Prior to the ban Mr. Hughes exported a quarter of his stock but now he can’t sell any on that market.
“Ever since the ban there’s been a downward spiral,” he said.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott raised the issue with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono during a recent visit to Jakarta, but admits: “There’s a bit of work yet to be done”.
Farmers are working longer hours to cope with the drought – dropping off extra feed, moving stock and refilling drying dams.
“I’m having to shift emergency water tanks to dams so the cattle don’t get bogged trying to get the last drink out of the dam,” Mr Hughes says.
With a wife and three young boys under 10, he says the strain of the work and financial burden is starting to get to him.
“You try not let that affect you but it does, it’s put the pressure on,” he said.
Charity group Aussie Helpers is warning farmers could be pushed to suicide if drought conditions don’t improve.
Brian Egan, founder of the group which distributes feed to farmers, fears graziers and farmers in the north and northwest says farmers could snap soon.
However, Mr. Hughes says farmers are a resilient bunch and although many are stressed at the moment, they are coping.
A $20,000 state government subsidy is helping, according to Mr. Hughes, but they’ll need more state and federal level support if the drought continues.
Queensland’s Agriculture Minister John McVeigh toured stations around Georgetown last week and promised to find a way to provide more help to drought stricken farmers last week according to a rural report.
The minister is expected to announce further assistance schemes later this month.
Some cattlemen have resorted to selling their starving cattle at a loss as they can’t afford to feed them.
Others, like Mr Hughes, are moving stock in the hope prices will pick up during the wet season.
“I try and remain positive and hope for the rain.”