‘Despite the recurrent but unpredictable nature of environmental disasters our memories of their biological and environmental toll are short. This may be merciful but…there is every possibility that the next…drought will prove to be more severe than any that have gone before.’ (Lovett 1972)
I have experienced several severe droughts both as a veterinarian and as a mixed livestock and cropping farmer on the Central Western Plains of NSW at Condobolin. Since moving to Bathurst I experienced the Millennial drought and other dry seasons prior to 2018-19. As Lovett has noted, our memories tend to be short, but it is important that we learn from each drought, to enable us to reduce their social, environmental, economic and welfare impact in the future.
Drought has plagued Australian agriculture since settlement and no doubt affected Indigenous Australians before that.
Following are some of my reflections on the lessons from previous and current droughts.
My father, a youth during the 1940s, told me of the devastating Second World War drought which culminated in 1944. For the next thirty years Eastern Australia experienced a drought every decade, in 1957, 1967 and 1977.
However the 1982 drought was the first to have a major impact on me. As a young veterinarian based at the University of Melbourne I worked with Western Victorian livestock producers managing the drought and monitored the health and performance of their livestock. The country was bare from Queensland to Victoria, agistment was scarce, feed was expensive and stock prices were low. Dust storms reached the eastern seaboard (and even New Zealand) causing some to question our land management. At the end of my time at the University of Melbourne, I summarised what I thought were some of the lessons from this drought (Watt 1983).
We learned that we need to get stock off paddocks when ground cover is minimal. In subsequent dry times many producers constructed inexpensive dry lots or used ‘sacrifice paddocks’ rather than denude their properties.
From the research conducted post-1944, we learned that we can successfully feed dry sheep on maintenance levels of grain plus supplementary calcium (lime fed at 1.5 per cent of the ration) for long periods of time.
The 1982 drought, associated with an El Nino, broke in spectacular fashion in March 1983 and it kept on raining, right through the harvest of 1983-4. We thought that when droughts broke, wet years followed. The dry years of the early 2000s showed this to be wrong.
While we learned how to feed stock for maintenance, nutritionists, most notably Leng from the University of New England, criticised this approach, arguing that feeding for production, often using protein supplements, was often superior particularly for young and lactating stock (Leng 1992 and Leng 2003).
We now have a wide range of management and feeding options. These include the staged reduction of stock numbers based on their productivity and manageability and pregnancy testing to enable feeding animals at levels appropriate for their pregnancy and lactation status. Because it is less efficient to feed a cow / ewe to feed a calf / lamb we understand the importance of imprinting, creep feeding and early weaning.
In 2018 we also have a wide range of feedstuffs from hay to cereal grains to high protein meals that are both reasonably available and reasonably priced compared to some previous dry spells. We also have apps and calculators to help formulate rations. And a big plus now is that stock prices have remained firm compared to the giveaway prices in most other droughts.
I learned several lessons from the 2018 drought and had some older lessons reinforced.
Firstly, many cattle producers were unable to feed cattle for a protracted period without them losing condition and being too weak to calve. Many cattle producers only fed cereal hay which is safe for short term supplementation in usual winters but is too low in energy and protein for protracted feeding. Hay is also expensive per unit of unit compared to grain and a high percentage is often wasted.
Another lesson was that lambing during a drought remains a challenge. Some producers had high lamb mortalities due to mismothering at lambing.
As the drought continued into 2019 in many areas, paddocks became denuded from a combination of continued stocking, hot dry weather and grazing by kangaroos.
Finally, it is predicted that the climate will become even more variable than it has been. Several producers that I have spoken to comment that they will need to do things differently. Some of the options for consideration include:
1. Trigger points for buying and selling stock. Deciding when to buy and sell stock is a crucial and difficult decision. Trigger points (which might be a date or condition of the stock, pastures or water supplies) can assist this decision making process. Of course trigger points will vary with the enterprise and the ability / willingness of the producer to feed through a drought. At least on the tablelands most agree that late April is an important decision point. If we don’t have adequate pasture and soil moisture then we know that we will have to feed until the spring. March-April often suits to sell not pregnant and less productive ewes and cows.
For spring calvers and lambers, June or July also provides another opportunity to quit stock before late pregnancy and lambing / calving. The next option for many is November December after early weaning of lambs and calves.
Phased destocking (or restocking) around a trigger point can give producers time to test the market and to play for time should the prospects of rain improve.
2. Enterprise mix. Many cattle producers (at least on the Central Tablelands), found it challenging to feed breeding cows last winter and spring. In part this was because (as mentioned above) they fed a hay based ration which was expensive and too low in energy and protein. Breeding cows are also more difficult to quit as they can’t be sold in late pregnancy or when they have small calves at foot.
Ewes can also be demanding in a drought although most sheep producers find that trail feeding or self-feeders work well. However lambing in a dry year is always challenging and like breeding cows, ewes are hard to quit in late pregnancy and lactation.
Over the years many farmers have run some merino wethers or steers in part because they are less labour and because they can be sold at any time if necessary.
Agistment offers the ultimate in enterprise flexibility.
3. Grazing systems. Proponents of rotational grazing argue that their systems enable them to handle droughts better. They consider that with paddocks shut up in front of their stock, they can estimate their future feed supply and if necessary sell stock well before both stock and pastures deteriorate. They also comment that these systems favour perennial species that are more productive and respond rapidly to rain. Critics point to the capital cost of more fences and multiple water sources. They also warn of the risk of grazing pastures that might be beyond their most nutritious stages of development.
4. Feed reserves. How much feed should be stored in preparation for drought? Neville McMichael whose company has successfully run many large farming enterprises across eastern Australia for many years addressed this and other drought related questions at farmers’ gathering late last year. While acknowledging that every enterprise is different, Neville considers that as a guide, having three months feed on hand helps to at least ride out short dry spells and maintain optimum production.
5. Preventing pasture and soil degradation. I hoped that we had learned from 1982 and from subsequent droughts about maintaining ground cover. However, by the summer of 2018-9 many paddocks remained stocked and became denuded. Some producers found that a confinement area enabled them to remove stock from paddocks when ground cover drops below critical levels (between 70 and 90% usually) and can make feeding and watering stock more efficient.