Central Victorian farmers are “on a knife’s edge” and need a good inch or two of rain very quickly.
This comes despite Friday’s predicted totals, according to Bendigo Associated Agents president Rupert Fawcett.
Farmers are getting rid of stock and planning for a less than impressive harvest as meteorologists predict the emergence of an El Niño weather pattern.
Still, the situation is not yet as bad as in some parts of the country.
In Queensland, 57 per cent of the state is in drought, according to the Queensland Government. Meanwhile, 99 percent of New South Wales is affected, according to that state’s Department of Primary Industries.
Elmore region farmer David Johnson recently sent 60-odd bales of barley straw up to the Tamworth area, to a man who had 400 cows calving on no feed.
“He said that truckload would last him eight days,” Mr Johnson said.
“Well, that’s pretty tough.
“I feel for those blokes up north. There’s not a lot we can do for them other than make hay available if we can afford to sell it,” he said.
Victoria is in a better position, even if everywhere except the state’s south-west is looking for more rain.
Although Mr Johnson is sending hay north, he says he has to keep in mind that he may need to keep some in case he soon needs it himself.
I’ve got clients of my own weaning off lambs earlier, selling of their whole mob with older ewes so they can save their feed.- Rupert Fawcett, Bendigo Associated Agents president
The next three months are important for crops in Victoria, with a growth window for many closing by the time summer arrives.
If rain does not fall in August, Agriculture Victoria agronomist Dale Boyd said farmers will be highly reliant on spring rainfalls. His colleague, Dale Grey, has suggested to farmers that plans for a poor spring “may not go astray”.
Meanwhile, the Bureau of Meteorology is suggesting an El Niño weather pattern could form over spring.
Mr Fawcett said many farmers he talked to are mindful of the bureau’s prediction, but are still hoping for a break in conditions.
“I guess it’s the areas north and west of Bendigo that are in the most trouble. South of Bendigo’s not too bad because they got more rain in the past few weeks than anywhere else in central Victoria,” he said.
“You don’t need to go that far away from Bendigo (to see drier conditions). You can go out Pyramid Hill or even Elmore, Echuca way. The crops still look alright but there is not much feed in the paddock for the stock.”
The lack of rain has affected crops’ growth.
Three Agriculture Victoria soil monitoring sites across central Victoria have recorded 25 per cent deep soil moisture, down from 50-75 per cent at this time last year.
Mr Johnson said crops in his area are where they ought to be in late-May, not the end of July. The region would need a “bloody good spring” to finish them off.
Farmers selling livestock as paddock feed dwindles
Bendigo was expecting between four and 10 millimetres on Friday, and it did rain into the evening.
Mr Fawcett said expected totals would likely not solve the problem.
Driving around the Kerang and Colbinabbin over the past few days, he had noticed that many farmers had begun putting their stock out to graze on crops.
Mr Fawcett said more sheep are coming through the Bendigo Livestock Exchange, most likely because farmers are preparing for more dry days.
“I’ve got clients of my own weaning off lambs earlier, selling of their whole mob with older ewes so they can save their feed,” he said.
“They’ve been feeding their stock for a long period now and are getting to the end of their supplies.”
At the moment we would say we are having a dry year – a very dry year. If it fails to rain much from now on, with hindsight, we would say that we had a drought.- Greg Toomey, Landmark agronomist
Extra supplies are getting harder to come by too. Much of it has been sold to those who need it in New South Wales and Queensland.
“I’ve even heard stories of people coming down here and asking farmers about what they have coming this season, and whether they can book it up now,” Mr Fawcett said.
Still, now is not the time to start throwing words like “drought” around in these parts of Victoria, according to Landmark agronomist Greg Toomey.
“Often ‘drought’ is a hindsight thing. At the moment we would say we are having a dry year – a very dry year,” he said.
“We’ve had sufficient rainfall to get the crops looking like they will be OK, with a reasonable finish from now.
“If it fails to rain much from now on, with hindsight, we would say that we had a drought.”
Many farmers in his service region, which stretches in a 50km radius around Elmore, do not have high expectations for the season.
Many crops had been late to grow, though Agriculture Victoria’s Dale Boyd said less frosts and longer days were now helping development.
Farmers are hoping at the least to keep their options open.
Mr Toomey said most canola crops would struggle to be well established coming into spring, but some at least looked to be okay.
Cereal crops would most likely be able to be harvested as hay, which would help replenish supplies that had been heavily depleted in the last eight months.
Faith in talented farmers
Even if the forecasts are right and rain levels stay below average, Mr Toomey has faith in modern farming techniques.
He says talented farmers will get through, especially in a region that has reaped the benefit of two good years that other parts of the country missed.
And hey, Friday’s rain did not hurt.
“We’re hopeful of some rain next week, too,” Mr Toomey said.
Unlike in September, when faster growth and warmer temperatures meant bigger, soaking-type rains were needed, smaller falls did make a reasonable contribution to crops this time of year.
“It keeps you in the game, helping you chip along,” Mr Toomey said.
Mr Toomey’s sentiments were shared by farmer David Johnson.
“I don’t want to paint it as all doom and gloom,” he said.
“If the spring rains are kind to us we will get out of jail.
“Dad will tell you a dry spell always ends with a good rain. It just depends when the good rain comes,” Mr Johnson said.