The history of the world records that every land experiences times of lean and times of plenty. N.S.W. is no exception to this, and in our lifetime there have been many periods of droughts and floods. The northern areas of the State have a reputation for being more stable than the west, but nature has a habit of being unkind even in the former favoured, so-called, localities.
In areas of higher rainfall a drought can set in much more quickly than in the more barren places, since the soil and grass cover is such that it requires repeated moistening to maintain growth and nourishment. In the western parts of the State six months without rain may not prove serious, but on the tablelands and coastal areas such a period without some precipitation can cause heavy losses.
Fortunately it is most unusual for the whole State to be drought-stricken at the one time, so one section of the community may gain while another loses. Stock fodder immediately increases in value and those who have the foresight and facilities for growing and conserving fodder in the form of hay or grain, and even prepared stock food, have a ready market and the value of their products increases considerably. Landholders in the favoured areas, who have a surplus of pasture, can take numbers of stock on agistment on a very profitable basis.
For those who are unfortunate enough to be involved in a drought it becomes a very worrying time, both financially and for the lives of the stock. The first consideration is saving the animals and this can be done only by feeding or moving them to other areas where grass is available. The purchase of fodder, especially roughage, is very expensive. The vendor immediately realises the demand is increasing and the price of hay doubles in a very short time. The cost of freight has to be considered and fodder may have to be carted many hundreds of miles. All this has to be paid for, as also the cost of distributing the fodder to the stock themselves. If the stock are moved the owner is involved in droving and permit charges and then the cost of agistment at the other end. Even worse than the failure of feed in the paddocks is the failure of water supplies; it being much more difficult to carry water than feed to stock.
Droughts can be brought about in a number of ways. The commonest cause, naturally, is the failure of normal rainfall. However, fires, grasshoppers and even floods can produce a drought in an area in a matter of a few hours. Then there is the owner, dealing in stock or depending on the regular sale of his natural increases, who finds that the market has collapsed and is forced to carry excessive numbers on his property: thus overstocking and hastening the failure of his pastures. This is becoming an altogether too common cause of localised droughts. These dry times also have associated with them a changing picture in regard to anímal diseases.
Starvation naturally is the most common cause of death, and losses can reach a very high figure in both sheep and cattle. There are some stock owners who let their animals just take their chance. If they die it is bad luck; if they survive so much the better. With a falling plane of nutrition two metabolic diseases are very common in sheep associated with lambing; and so Pregnancy Toxaemia and Hypocalcaemia usually are encountered. In the Tableland country the losses from Acute Fluke infestation are increased considerably in sheep, and to a lesser extent in cattle. The stock seeking a green pick concentrate their feeding along water-courses and so increase the chances of picking up the parasites.
On the credit side is the fact that intestinal worms are usually at a minimum, owing to the failure of many worm eggs to withstand desiccation, and it is usual if the dry spell is not too prolonged to see sheep in first-class order.
What is the picture when the rain does come? It is common for a drought to break with heavy rain and it is as a result of this that many stockowners incur their greatest losses.
In black soil areas, which soon become a quagmire, weak stock are bogged easily and soon give up the struggle and die. If stock have been totally handfed it is often not possible to get to the paddocks with feed and so deaths from starvation soon occur. In coastal areas floods are all too common and where a district may lose thousands of pounds in a drought this soon may become millions with the inundation of land and houses and the loss by drowning of large numbers of stock. Nothing could be more heart-breaking to a stockowner, who has paid out large sums of money to keep his assets during a drought, than to end by losing the lot due to a flood.
In more favoured areas the rain soon changes the whole countryside. Grass grows where it was thought it would never grow again, and within a few weeks smiles can be seen on many formerly harassed faces. Stock start back to their own pastures and life settles down once again to the more or less normal, but the danger is not yet over. Stock are still in a weakened condition and must be handled carefully. Worms, which are possibly the greatest enemy of sheep in the higher rainfall areas, unfortunately thrive in the moist conditions and within a short time can breed at an alarming rate. Weak stock are an easy prey to these parasites, so the trouble is not over until the stock have gained strength and condition and the parasites are controlled. Another enemy, the blowfly, also relishes similar conditions and becomes another problem which has to be fought at a time when the stockowner would like to sit back and have a short spell.
Everyone would like to live in Utopia, where droughts and floods are unknown. This set-up cannot be found in Australia or in any other part of the world, but one should not sit back and say that nothing can be done about it.
Quite a lot can be done. Firstly, it is essential to increase the storage of a suitable reserve of fodder on every property. This is a form of insurance that possibly should be made compulsory. It does not seem reasonable for a landholder to insure house, car, machinery and even life and yet fail to insure stock, which in most cases is the sole source of income. It is a fact, of course, that the over-all position in this regard is improving. For instance, over the higher rainfall areas the number of bales of meadow hay conserved these days is greater by many thousands than it was 10 years ago. However, there still are far too many owners who could conserve fodder, and do not.
Those who could grow fodder and store it, and make no attempt to do so, are letting themselves and the country down. Others who cannot grow fodder should purchase and store enough when prices are reasonable, instead of waiting until the cost of the bale of hay is double what it should be; and so adding to their financial burden. This aspect is considered of the greatest importance in lessening the blow during a dry time.
Control of stock, and with that energetic steps in soil and water conservation and an increase in the amount of pasture improvement all play their part in the wider aspect of reducing the effects of droughts. On the national plane is the provision of large water storages to reduce the flow of big rivers and so lessen the inundation of thousands of acres of valuable land. It may not be possible to prevent a drought or a flood, but man with the vast resources and expert knowledge available to him, can reduce the effect and lessen the blow, save his own pocket and assist vitally in the national economy.