The drought broke just in time for Australia's farmers - now they're battling coronavirus

For three years, farming communities across eastern Australia have been battling a crippling drought that has devastated growers and forced some to sell up. And while some regions are now getting rainfall, the drought’s fallout is now being compounded by COVID-19.

Cattle farmers begin drought recovery amid coronavirus challenge

Cattle breeders Angus and Leslie Tink have seen a dramatic transformation on their paddock after years of drought. Source: SBS News/Omar Dehen

In the Central West region of NSW, paddocks which were bone dry merely six weeks ago have now been transformed into acres of lush and healthy pastures.

The drought broke in the region in February, as unforgiving drought conditions that have spanned years in some parts of the country slowly began to ease.

In the small town of Mebul, 50 kilometres from Mudgee, fourth-generation farmers Angus and Leslie Tink were one season away from ending their cattle breeding operations.

Leslie tells SBS News the drought meant they had to hand-feed their stock for three years.

In better times, Angus and Leslie owned more than 1,200 cows.
Source: SBS News/Omar Dehen

“It was just very, very difficult. It was getting that bad that in the end, at our age, you just don’t know how you can go on.”

“Every day, the same thing … 600 shovels of cotton, so many bales of hay. Every cow got a feed whenever they had to be fed.

It also had an impact on their finances. 

“[Before the drought] we had $100,000 in the bank. Now we are $349,000 overdrawn.”

The Tinks had to sell a majority of their cows for half the usual price but kept their final 250 as Angus sensed a change in the air.

He says the drought broke just in time.

“It’s totally different. We’ve been sowing oats, we’ve been spraying thistles and weeds and rubbish - just a complete turnaround. Back to business again, that’s what it is.” 

Australian cattle industry begins post-drought recovery amid coronavirus challenge

The drought’s squeeze on the cattle industry remains tight. With breeders having de-stocked, selling numbers have dwindled and the price for cattle has soared.

In better times, 1,200 cows would be at Mudgee’s cattle sales. This week, there were only 200.

“Everyone’s trying to re-stock,” stock agent Bill Lawson says. 

“It’ll be six, eight, 12 months before we can even get close to getting back to supply. A lot of our breeders are gone, so I don’t think our cow breeding numbers will get back for years.”

A new challenge

The impact of COVID-19, too, is adding new challenges at the cattle yards, with fewer people allowed entry to the sales for social distancing to be properly observed.

“We’ve restricted those to just the buyers, our regular buyers have come, to try and ensure their safety and the industry’s safety, so it’s impacting greatly,” Mr Lawson says. 

COVID-19 is impacting Australia’s other agricultural sectors in vastly contrasting ways. Seafood and pork producers have been hit hardest by the restaurant shutdown and demand for wool and cotton is expected to dip due to a downturn in fashion industries.

But, equally, there’s been strong demand for staples such as flour and rice, with the uncertainties brought by the virus compounding damage on farmers still waiting for rain.

A cattle sale in Mudgee, NSW, where buyer turnouts are low due to social distancing.
Source: SBS News/Omar Dehen

“Our irrigation industries are still under a fair bit of pressure,” says NSW Farmers Association CEO Pete Arkle.

“We’ve had decent rains across many parts of the Murray-Darling Basin, but our dams are still relatively low, which is likely to mean to lower irrigation allocations later in the year, particularly for crops like rice, irrigated cereals, and potentially dairy.”

Mr Arkle describes the current situation for farmers as “a mixed story”.

“Access to labour is something that’s top of mind for farmers, and making sure we can get those critical inputs - the fertiliser, the seed, the fuel - that we’ll really need to get that crop in the ground.”

The Tinks appear to have finally been alleviated of such pressures, and while Angus and Leslie worry about older farmers and their own families during this isolation period - the pair are staying positive.

“We had so many dust storms, in the drought, the house and the sheds, shovelling out dirt, It’s actually been a bit of a godsend to stay at home and do nothing but clean up,” Leslie says. 

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

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Published 16 April 2020 at 6:39pm
By Omar Dehen