The Riverina might not be in drought, officially, but a dry start to the year – and the likelihood of a warm and dry winter – has farmers on edge.
It’s crunch time for decent rain to get dry-sown crops out of the ground, boost those that have already emerged from the parched earth or simply help farmers decide whether they’ll take the gamble.
The eyes on the skies come as livestock producers hand-feed stock – many of them tapping into “drought reserves”.
“We were lucky we put a heap of grain aside from a couple of years ago, when it wasn’t worth much, and that’s what we’re feeding the sheep now,” said Mark Hoskinson, a fifth-generation Riverina farmer.
Just 60 millimetres of rain has fallen on Mr Hoskinson’s property at Kikoira, west of West Wyalong, since Christmas. He is hand-feeding lambing ewes and is yet to decide whether to put in a crop.
“We’ve got no subsoil moisture whatsoever on our place, so that’s why we haven’t been game to sow anything as yet,” he said.
No crop generally means no income, but Mr Hoskinson isn’t worried. He has seen plenty of dry starts and, while this year’s extended dry spell might be worse than others, it’s not as bad as the “Millennium drought”.
Across the region, “thousands and thousands of acres” have been sown dry or on limited amounts of moisture, Mr Hoskinson said.
“I drove to Griffith last week and they’re struggling, they [the crops] are coming out very patchy … and some are struggling,” he said.
“I drove to Canberra from here on Friday and back; the only patches of crop that are looking any good are to the east of Temora and up around that Harden area.”
Ariah Park farmer Matthew Dart was among those who’ve put a crop in and got it out of the ground.
Speaking to the Advertiser alongside a paddock of oats with a “green tinge” to it, Mr Dart said conditions were “not fantastic”.
“We’ve had horrendously low rainfall for certainly the first half of this year,” he said.
“From a cropping point of view it’s not the end of the world, providing it does rain at some stage … but from a sheep feed point of view, we’ve got no feed at all and now we’re feeding very, very expensive grain and hay to them.”
However, Mr Dart stressed those in other parts of NSW were worse off.
“Most people in this neck of the woods, while not overly happy with what’s going on, certainly have made provision in their business to be able to deal with it,” he said.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology’s latest drought statement, there were serious to severe rainfall deficiencies across parts of the Riverina during the first five months of 2018.
While rainfall in Wagga between January 1 and May 31 was on par with the same period last year, the same can’t be said for other Riverina communities.
Hay’s January-to-May total was down more than 80mm, while Griffith’s 41.8mm was just a third of last year’s figure.
Deniliquin had its lowest autumn rainfall in 21 years of record this year, with 23.6mm falling at the town’s airport. The previous seasonal low was 28.2mm in 2013; the autumn average is 75mm.
The NSW government’s latest drought map, updated on Wednesday, showed 92 per cent of the Riverina was in “drought onset”, with the remainder on “drought watch”.
Mr Hoskinson said: “We’re in drought”.
“We had a crop failure last year, we’ve had limited rainfall all last year and predominately all this year, too,” he said.
“If it wasn’t for the couple of inches we got just before Christmas, we’d be in dire straits.”
Riverina rainfall on the horizon
All eyes with be on the skies over the Riverina in coming days as a rain-bearing weather system lines up our parched region.
Ben Domensino, from Weatherzone, said a northwest cloud band drawing moisture from the Indian Ocean would cause widespread rain over parts of southern NSW.
“While northwest cloud bands like this one are typical at this time of year, they have been noticeably absent in recent months, and so has the rain they usually bring,” Mr Domensino said.
The system is likely to deliver widespread falls of 10-20mm across southern inland NSW.
“There are early signs that another rain-bearing system could sweep over the nation’s south and southeast early next week, although it’s too early to know how much rain this next system will being, and where,” he said.
Producers get feed help in their hands
Riverina livestock producers hand-feeding their animals is nothing new – but a NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) app is helping farmers facing drought get more bang for their buck amid rising fodder costs.
The DPI’s free Drought Feed Calculator provides the estimated energy, protein and dry matter values for 71 different types of feed – including hay, grain and silage – and can be used to work out the minimum feed requirements for animals.
Riverina NSW DPI sheep development officer Geoff Casburn said the app simplified feeding decisions and was a valuable tool given the dry start to the year across the region.
“I would doubt there’d be many producers out there who aren’t feeding,” Mr Casburn said.
“Commonly producers do feed in the Riverina because we have a long, hot and dry summer period, so for many it’s not new.”
The difference this time, he said, was farmers feeding all of their stock for an extended period of time. The calculator helped producers “more accurately calculate how much they need to feed”.
“Often people might be feeding dry animals, but what’s happened this year is there hasn’t been that feed for people so they’re having to fully feed lactating animals now, so they’re either lambing or calving,” he said.
The three-year-old app was downloaded 12,000 times as of about six months ago. However, download numbers have soared recently, Mr Casburn said, as producers were “forced into feeding and struggling with accessing fodder sources”.