Drought crisis: Alpaca farmers warn recent rain not enough to turn things around


Farms continue to struggle under the unprecedented conditions, including breeders from NSW's emerging alpaca industry.

Relief has finally arrived for drought-stricken farmers, with rain in some affected parts of eastern Australia.

That reprieve over the past week has been welcomed by farmers, but many warn it is not enough to turn things around.

There is moisture in the air on the New South Wales south coast, and, more importantly, on the ground.

The Alpacas of the New South Wales south coast.
The Alpacas of the New South Wales south coast.
SBS News

Twenty-five millimetres of rainfall was recorded over seven days at Consolation Creek in Cambewarra - the location of Coolawarra Alpaca Farms

The greener pastures for the 150 alpacas on the 100 hectare property has offered new-found optimism for their owners, as creeks that were dry for months start to fill with water.

"We've seen an instant improvement over the past couple of days,” farmer Ian Davison told SBS News.

“We've had just less than an inch of rain and we can already see some of the effects of that. But the countryside is crying out for moisture."

Farmers continue to suffer

Ian Davison and Janie Forrest have been semi-retired since reducing their stock in January. But they have limited feed for the ones left, and have been forced to cut back on a breeding program.

"Look if I depended on feeding 1000 of alpacas as I was 12 months ago, I wouldn't be smiling much at all right now,” Ms Forrest told SBS News.

“(The south coast) is this extraordinary piece of Australia that never goes into drought down here, and my goodness it doesn't react well when it doesn't get rain -  it's spoiled rotten."

Ian Davison and Janie Forrest say fresh rain has buoyed their spirits, but warn far more is needed to save their farm. (SBS News/Omar Dabbagh)
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

And while a little rain has made a big difference, Ian Davison explains that it's nowhere near enough.

"What we need is a long period of soaking rain - to replenish all our waterways, fill our dams, moisten the soil,” he said.

“Even though we get some surface moisture, if you dig down just a matter of a few inches, the soil is very, very dry."

The 'green drought phenomenon' 

The Shoalhaven region isn't used to drought, nor does it appear to be suffering on the surface. But the paddocks have been punished, and Ms Forrest says it’s called the ‘green drought phenomenon’.

“So you look across at it's just a carpet of green. But truly a carpet of green is of some nutritional value until it's eaten - and it's eaten like that. So it doesn’t last."

In neighbouring Berry, Silos Estate owner Raj Ray sold nearly all of his 40 alpacas due to the drought and now hand-feeds the few he has left.

Native to South America, alpacas are built to withstand harsh climates - meaning they can endure droughts for longer than other livestock. (SBS News/Omar Dabbagh)
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

His main revenue comes from his vineyards, but the conditions are costing him dearly.

"We're about the third year into a fairly crushing drought,” Mr Ray said.

“By this time this year we'd expect to have about 1000ml of rain. But we've had 111 this year, so we're running at about 10 per cent.

“And now we're starting to experience issues with our vineyards, where our vines are starting to die off because it has been so dry for so long."

Relying on Mother Nature

Silos Estate has been carbon neutral for a decade. It runs entirely on solar power, and Raj Ray saves more than two million litres of water a year by not irrigating his vines.

But relying on Mother Nature means if more rain doesn't come, an enterprise that employs 50 people will be in serious trouble.

"The very immediate consequence is our agricultural enterprise stops,” Mr Ray said.

“We won't have animals and we won't have vines. We won't make wine, we won't make alpaca products."

A growing industry

Australia’s alpaca industry has been steadily growing over the past 30 years, and farms like Millpaca are now allowing it to thrive.

Harvey Gollan from Millpaca Farms says it is important for the federal government to help farmers drought proof their paddocks. (SBS News/Omar Dabbagh)
SBS News/Omar Dabbagh

It's the largest Alpaca farm in the southern hemisphere, with 5000 animals across three properties producing 10 tonnes of fleece annually and being sold for meat.

And manager Harvey Gollan said those properties need water - everywhere.

"We need it in the hills. We need to fill up, the groundwater needs to come back again. We need to get the creeks flushed out and flowing again,” Mr Gollan said.

A durable animal

One form of relief for alpaca farmers during this unprecedented drought comes from the alpacas themselves.

Native to South America, alpacas are built to withstand even harsher climates, meaning they can endure droughts for longer than other livestock."

"80 per cent of what an alpaca eats is utilised. So as opposed to a cow, that's 50 per cent,” Mr Gollan said.

“So they're a lot more efficient feeder, so what we can give them goes a lot further.”

Silos Estate owner Raj Ray
Silos Estate owner Raj Ray.
SBS News

“It's a really, hardy, little fleece machine and so it will adapt to this,” added Ms Forrest.

And with the drought at the top of the new Morrison government's agenda, calls continue for practical solutions.

"You can't expect the government to regulate the weather,” Ian Davison said.

“What you can expect them to do is to encourage farmers to drought-proof their farms by providing things like tax breaks and subsidies.”

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