“If you don’t think drought is part of farming, you’re in the wrong game.”

Published: September 2018 | By: Nicola Bell 

Despite seeing his winter forage crops fail for the first time, Central West cattle farmer Angus Atkinson says the story isn’t all bad. 

Coonabarabran farmer Angus Atkinson feeds cottonseed to his cows. He says his property is as dry as he’s seen it, but is confident he can feed “no matter what”. Photography by Jake Lindsay. 
IF you don’t think drought is part of farming, you’re in the “wrong game”, says cattle farmer Angus Atkinson. “We get droughts and we always will, but you have to be resilient.”
Angus says his 1,600-hectare property in Coonabarabran, Central West NSW, is as dry as he’s seen it in 30 years of farming. “It’s getting into the record books now.”

Coonabarabran received 145mm of rain between January and the end of July – it normally has an average annual rainfall of 750mm.


The farm had just 5.4mm of rain in April and May.

Angus, who sits on several NSW Farmers committees and farms with the support of his wife Anna and their daughter Ella, has had a serious rainfall deficiency on his property since October-November last year. He has been off-loading cattle for 12 months and is down to 50% of the 400-head crossbred herd.

“I was going to separate the older cows and feed them a bit extra, they were all in calf and healthy but I realised I had to sell them. At the time I shed a tear but thank god I did it.”
He says selling a lot of cows provided money to feed those they have left, with a feeding regimen consisting of hay, cottonseed and molasses. 
 

Angus unloads 10 tonnes of cottonseed from a truck.

“Our stock numbers are down to a level where we can feed no matter what,” he says. “I’m fairly conservative and risk-averse.

*Hunter cattle producer Tony Hegarty has also destocked and shares his tough three-part decision making process to reduce the long term impact of drought. READ HERE

“A bank manager told a friend if he can’t sleep at night with a decision, then don’t go down that track. It’s the same scenario when feeding. I did get a warning though from an uncle that we’ve got to make sure we don’t run out of money, that’s the trick.”

Angus says the hay and cottonseed they are buying is “extremely expensive”, but his greatest concern is that the next lot of hay he has bought won’t turn up. “I worry that someone else has got in and paid more.”

LACK OF SUBSOIL MOISTURE A MAJOR CONCERN FOR FARMERS 

Another major concern is the lack of subsoil moisture. Angus sowed some winter forage crops in early March when they had a bit of a break with some rain in late February and early March. 

Normally he says the key is to sow early and the crop will grow while it’s warm, and then he can graze stock on it in winter. But he says this year it all came to nothing. The family had just 5.4mm of rain in April and May and the crop failed. For Angus this was unprecedented. “I don’t recall ever sowing a crop and it dying,” he says.

While he hopes he has enough money to wait out the drought, Angus believes well-targeted government assistance, such as a rebate on council rates or insurance, could be beneficial for farmers.
 


“Whatever it is, it has to be fair and equitable, not just freight subsidies,” he says, explaining that the problem with freight subsidies is that farmers who grow their own hay and grain fodder and have stored enough receive nothing, while those who need to buy in feed are subsidised.

As well as it not being fair to all farmers, he says freight subsidies can also distort the market. “I bought molasses for $330 a tonne delivered, but a freight subsidy means I could buy it from Queensland and transport it 2,000km, for less than if I got it in NSW.”
 


POSITIVITY HELPS FARMERS THROUGH THE DROUGHT 

Despite the tough times, Angus says the camaraderie with his neighbours is positive and they are all getting on with the job. “We are sick of the drought, but we have to get on with it,” he says, adding that his mantra is “keep calm and keep going”.
 
“I’ve been on the farm nearly 30 years and I’ve been saying agriculture’s time is coming, and now it’s genuinely here,” he says. “Agriculture has the most fantastic future.”

For the moment, he says, his plan is to keep feeding cattle and wait for it to rain. And once it does rain, it’ll be “happy days”.

“I’m incredibly positive about what we are doing, there is no other way of being,” he says. He just wishes the media would paint a more positive picture instead of focusing on the most negative aspects of drought.
 
*READ more about Central West sheep farmers Wayne and Lynette Culverson who also have a message to share about the importance of remaining positive during the drought. 
 

Angus and wife Anna with their 10-year-old daughter Ella.

“My 10-year-old daughter Ella helps me feed the cows, but how can I convince her to come back onto the farm if all she sees is dying sheep?” Angus says. “No other industry promotes the negative side.”  

*READ more about the setbacks for young farmers trying to make a break into the agricultural industry

TOOLS FOR NAVIGATING DROUGHT

A clever interactive online tool can show you the exact conditions in your area. For the first time, this is at the touch of a computer key. The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) Combined Drought Indicator allows you to click on your region and zoom into your parish.

The DPI’s online DroughtHub provides all the information you’ll need on government help and advice. It has a range of calculators, including an Excel spreadsheet that helps producers make decisions on salvaging crops during drought. This allows you to key in all your own figures, so you can calculate the cost of baling crops for hay or silage, and the price of taking the crops through to harvest.

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