Farmers hurting

Louise Neal with just a small amount of the hay she and husband Pat have bought in to feed their cattle.
Louise Neal with just a small amount of the hay she and husband Pat have bought in to feed their cattle.

RECENT rains have brought welcome relief across the region, but it hasn't been anywhere near enough to ease the drought conditions facing local farmers.

This week's rainfall has been enough to start greening up the grass at the Oxley Island dairy farm run by Pat and Louise Neal, and now they are waiting to see whether it grows.

But it has made no difference to the dam levels, which are practically bone dry, and they expect that by the end of the month they will have no water left in either of their dams to fill the troughs their cattle drink from.

Oxley Island dairy farmer Pat Neal pictured with one of his dry, parched dams.

Oxley Island dairy farmer Pat Neal pictured with one of his dry, parched dams.

Pat has been a dairy farmer his entire life and the couple say they have never seen it this bad.

They have two dams on their 450 acre property, which they established as a dairy farm in October 2012 and only one has a small amount of water left.

The deep cracks and parched dam surfaces paint a bleak picture of what farmers in general are currently facing and Pat believes it is going to take a flood for the situation to recover and their dams be filled.

The Neals, who have two small children, and a few staff, are in a fortunate position where they can switch over to town water.

"Some farmers don't have that access," said Louise.

They say they are among the "lucky ones" but when you consider one cow drinks up to 150 litres of water each day and with around 280 cows being run on the farm, that is going to add up to one expensive water bill.

In addition to the cows' drinking the water, evaporation is also a big issue.

The hot summer weather has seen their pool lose inches of water each day, so Louise said she can only imagine what it is doing to the land.

"It's a double whammy."

Their cows are in the middle of calving, so the Neals have about 50 pregnant cattle (about 60 have already calved) and good nutrition is needed.

"We have 500kg pregnant ladies who need nutrition and others are lactating," said Louise.

In November, January and February they bought in loads of hay from Victoria to supplement the feed because there was no decent grass for them to feed on.

Farmers used to receive freight subsidies but that assistance is no longer available.

Good rain in November and growing grass meant they were able to make their own hay to feed their cattle through the month of December but with no more rain, it was short-lived.

Unless the grass starts growing, it won't come back until spring and they will have to buy in feed throughout winter.

"We supplement the feed as much as we can but nothing is as good as grass," said Louise.

They are watching some of their older cows struggling and have lost some.

"We're watching the cows struggle and we can afford to buy in the hay farmers will put themselves into debt to buy," she said.

Milking pays for the ongoing costs of the farm but the money they make from milking doesn't cover it all when times are bad.

At the moment it is costing them $900 of hay to feed the cattle each day (about $5.50 per cow a day they make back about $8.50 per cow from the milk and there are additional costs of grain, wages, machinery, diesel, electricity, chemicals, water, plus loan repayments to take into consideration.

"We're not making any money," said Louise.

"There are ways to tighten the belt but you can't stop feeding."

They have spent their savings to buy hay as they can't skimp on giving the cows good nutrition.

"You sacrifice something else, sell other things off, your home  budget gets tightened, cut staff and work harder yourself. You can't stop with the feed.

"What's the point of doing anything else if the cows keep dropping milk?"

Already their cows are feeling the strain and have dropped the amount of milk they produce.

They currently produce about 17litres a day each, down from 20litres, which Pat said may not sound like much but when you consider how many cows are milking it is quite significant.

Pat said they are trying to stretch everything as far as it can go - including the cattle.

"The older ones when you stretch them you get to a point it doesn't work.

Louise said the animals are treated well and you prioritise them.

"You have a sense of responsibility to your animal. You love them - they are not just an asset to us."

The difficultly in times like this is that dairy farmers can't sell their cows because no one will buy them - which means many farmers are sending cattle to be culled in order to make money.

Many farmers go into debt or close.

"What do you do when the bank says no more?" asked Pat.

He puts some of the blame for the struggle of dairy farmers to keep up with the costs on the shoulders of the supermarkets.

"When the supermarkets are selling milk for a dollar a litre and you're going through something like this, what do you do?" asked Pat.

"The supermarkets have to take some responsibility for their actions."

Pat said two cents extra on milk per litre is good to put away into your savings, because it's what you draw in when times are tough.

He said he is concerned that with the predicted rise in population that by 2030 there might not be enough milk in Australia to supply the nation and we will have to start importing milk from other countries where standards are not as high as here.

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