Can't buy me rain....

by Liz Beavis
We have only owned our farm since March 2012 and I think I’ve figured out the problem with farming already. The problem is that the most crucial input, the weather, is completely out of the farmer’s control! Not only that, it seems to be impossible to predict accurately. Some years will be average, some will be amazing and some will be awful, and you never know what you’re going to get, but you need to always plan for the worst. Sometimes I wish we could just pool our money and buy some rain, but of course, it’s the one thing that we can’t buy.
Our largest dam

We made two mistakes this year, and we are determined to learn from them and become better at managing our farm.

The first thing we did wrong was overstock our property. We knew we had too many cattle, but at first we had an awful lot of excess grass, so it seemed like a good way to clear the property and find out where all the stumps and logs were lurking in the long grass. Also the Brafords were doing a great job of eating the African Love Grass that we wanted to be rid of, so it seemed like a good plan at the time. We planted forage sorghum and millet, so we knew we had enough to feed the cattle when the rain came.

Our second mistake was believing the weather forecast. Back in winter, we saw forecasts for a wet spring. This encouraged us to plant forage and to keep the cattle. We did have a little rain, enough to plant the forage, but it was not a wet spring. During spring, we were told it would be a wet summer, so we thought the forage would grow and we would keep the cattle. At the same time, things were going pretty badly in western Queensland and the cattle market was flooded with animals anyway, so it wasn’t a good time to sell. During summer, we slowly realized that it was not going to be a wet summer, in fact it was the driest and hottest on record in some parts of Queensland. The cattle gradually ate through the remaining grass, we fed them molasses, hay and mineral supplements (which then became difficult to buy), as the forage that we had planted wilted in the field. The cattle market got worse and worse, until the meat works were booked out weeks in advance. It has become increasingly difficult to buy hay for the cattle and we are now running out of surface water (dam water) for them to drink.

If we were depending on these cattle to make an income (like real farmers), we would now be faced with an awful decision. Either try to keep the cattle alive buy hauling feed and water to our property, so that when things improve we still have some breeding stock, but get into massive debt in the process, or try to sell the cattle while they are still in good condition, and at least get a little money for them and let the property recover (but have no hope of an income for over a year and the certainty of having to buy back cattle later when the prices have increased). Fortunately we have an off farm income and that makes the decision easy. We decided to sell as many of the cattle as we can, and leave the hay and water supplies for the real farmers that need them more than we do.

It’s a shame to see the Brafords go, we’ve only had them for a couple of years and they have made some lovely fat calves for us to sell, and done a great job of eating the African Love Grass, but we now we are thinking of trying a different breed. Maybe something smaller. We will wait for the grass to grow back before we buy anything else though!

What did we learn? Don’t overstock the property, don’t get stuck with stock when the market goes bad and don’t believe the weather forecast. What are we going to do differently? Increase our water supply (bigger dams and a bore), develop permanent pasture on our cultivation ground instead of planting each season and be more flexible with cattle numbers (fewer breeding cows and buy and sell weaners when we have the grass for them). As for the weather, I have never thought about the weather so much in my life as over the last 2 years and I still have no clue how to predict or understand it, I will be doing some reading…
What have you learnt from the drought/weather at your place recently?

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