The fight to survive the drought goes on

NOTHING HERE: A kangaroo looking for food on farm land at drought-stricken Lightning Ridge. Picture: Rural Aid
NOTHING HERE: A kangaroo looking for food on farm land at drought-stricken Lightning Ridge. Picture: Rural Aid

There are no winners in this story.

Seven cattle are dead and a farmer has lost livestock he was trying to save.

A truck load of drought-stricken cattle bound for greener pastures stopped in the NSW Hunter Valley town of Maitland late last month to give the livestock a rest.

The journey was too much for some of them and seven had to be euthanised before the rest continued south to Nowra.

If widespread rain doesn't come soon to ease this unrelenting drought some farmers will be out of options and it will be impossible to continue farming.

Some Hunter farmers have already run out of water and been forced to sell all of their animals. Others are carting water to keep their livestock alive. The lack of hay on the market in the region is another hurdle.

The declining situation is being reflected in a higher number of cattle moving through Maitland Saleyards.

Bowe and Lidbury director Tony Bowe said most producers were selling their stock instead of trying to source agistment and their strategy was to sell all of their animals or hold onto their best until they couldn't go on any longer.

He said it was up to the farmer and the cattle carrier to decide if animals were fit to travel.

"Its a hard question to put on a truck driver and an owner. The owner is in a desperate situation and somebody has offered agistment and they want to get the cattle there," Mr Bowe said.

"The key to the whole rural industry is rain and without it we are all in trouble. You've got to have grass to fatten the cows up. You've got to have feed to feed them and if you have no feed you have to find agistment or sell them. That's what a lot of people have been doing."

Maitland has received its lowest January to August rainfall in almost a decade. The city received only 339 millimetres of rain - it's lowest reading since 2010.

The January to August rainfall total has been decreasing each year since 2015, when 880.5mm fell. Last year the city received an extra 128 millimetres of rain during that period, which helped give pastures a reprieve.

Maitland steps up to keep Upper Hunter farmers in fruit, veggies

With the Bureau of Meteorology predicting warmer than average temperatures and lower than average rainfall between now and summer, farmers are feeling on edge and looking to the sky for rain.

"Once we get a few hot days the evaporation is going to take the water that's left," Mr Bowe said.

"We need a lot of good rain to turn the season around here and we need heavy rain to give runoff into dams. In the Upper Hunter it's even worse - they need a lot more rain to turn their season around."

Weatherwatch meteorologist Don White thinks the region could receive another deluge similar to the one at the end of August if the right conditions line up.

That gave Maitland 44.5 millimetres of rain - it's only August rainfall, and some nearby suburbs received as much as 60mm.

Ninety-five per cent of the state is still in drought according to the state government's Combined Drought Indicator.

In the Hunter 26 per cent is in intense drought, 53.8 per cent is in drought and 20.1 is drought affected.

The Combined Drought Indicator for NSW shows 95 per cent of the state is still in drought.

The Combined Drought Indicator for NSW shows 95 per cent of the state is still in drought.

More than 200 producers have taken steps to diversify their skills through the AgriSkills program while they wait for conditions to improve.

The opportunity allowed them to access a range of fully subsidised courses tailored to the farming needs of the region. There was everything from digital farm mapping to rural welding and fabrication.

"With the drought unfortunately continuing across the Hunter, many producers have chosen to destock completely or reduce stocking rates, which has had a huge impact on not just their workloads, but also morale and day to day activities," Regional Drought Coordinator for Hunter Local Land Services, Maria Cameron said.

"We've had overwhelmingly positive feedback from participants, and 98% of the students have completed their courses."

It was possible through a partnership between Hunter Local Land Services, TAFE NSW, Training Services NSW and the Department of Primary Industries' Rural Resilience Program.

This story Drought, dead cattle and a bleak forecast first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.