Rains mock drought-hit Australian farms

Liv Casben |

Mark Collins, from Moura in Queensland, says his farm desperately needs drenching rain.
Mark Collins, from Moura in Queensland, says his farm desperately needs drenching rain.

In central Queensland, just a few hundred kilometres separate flood-hit farms and Mark Collins’ parched property, where the “never ending dry” is taking its toll.

For all the rain relief recorded in other parts of Australia’s east, his farm at Moura in the Central Highlands has been drought declared for four years, and he’s had to change his business model. 

“It means producing less food,” says Mr Collins who has reduced his cattle herd by a third.

While ex-Tropical Cyclone Seth dumped so much rain in January just a few hours away in the nearby Burnett region that it was declared a disaster zone, a meagre 27mm fell on Collins’ farm.

“We desperately need that drenching rain that some areas have had … we can’t take a trick,” he tells AAP from the veranda of his farmhouse, where there’s no rain on the horizon.

He says large parts of his home state have missed the recent rain.

“We’re now into February so our window for good soaking rain which runs gullies and fills our dams, the opportunities are getting less and less by the week.

“We’ve got rainfall records on this property back to 1968, we’re used to dry times and to droughts, but the length and severity of this drought is … unprecedented.” 

It’s been a long dry period too for the Christie family near Broken Hill in far west NSW.

Since 2017, the annual average rainfall has been around 5cm, about half the usual level.

By 2018 the drought was so severe the Christies had a choice; sell their sheep or find a way to feed them.

With greener pastures elsewhere they bought a second property at Benalla in Victoria, 800km southeast, where they moved their stock.

Four years on, their Broken Hill property is still in drought.

“It’s been very frustrating because most of January there were a lot of storms floating around … but it never quite made it to our place,” Christy Christie tells AAP. 

While neighbouring properties in Broken Hill received up to 100mm of rain in January, only 15mm fell for the Christies and only on a small part of their farm.

“It definitely makes you question what you are doing, because we’re burning the candles at both ends running between the two places,” the farmer and mother-of-four tells AAP.

“In the long term is it worth it what we’re sacrificing, missing out time with our children, and putting the whole family under pressure?” 

She says if it doesn’t rain in the next few years they may have to sell one of the properties.

While the La Nina weather pattern has generated plenty of rain across the north and east of Australia, summer rainfall was well below average along western and southern parts of WA, southeast South Australia and Tasmania’s west.

Almost 65 per cent of Queensland remains drought declared.

“These big rain events do not necessarily mean the drought is over,” Queensland Minister for Agriculture Mark Furner says. 

“Some areas of northwest and central west Queensland, which have been drought declared the longest, are still looking for more rain this wet season.”

Longreach, in Queensland, was drought declared almost a decade ago. Local mayor and farmer Tony Rayner says while “wonderful rain” replenished dams and returned moisture to the soil, some areas are still in desperate need. 

“Whilst the rain has fallen over a large area it’s still extremely patchy, many people are telling me they’ve had good rain on one section of their property but it’s been a lot lighter in other sections,” he tells AAP. 

Mr Rayner says good follow-up rain is needed before his home region can break free from drought.

“A drought is never broken in a single rainfall event, it’s just relief for a period of time. The true breaking of the drought is when you have good rain over an extended period over two to three months.”

There’s been a long-term decline in rain across parts of Australia and drought severity, drought length and drought frequency are all predicted to get worse, says Mark Howden from the Australian National University.

The head of ANU’s Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions tells AAP that rainfall is down by as much as 20 per cent in parts of southern Australia compared to a century ago.

“Australia is likely to have a drying trend in the southern part of Australia, and in the southwest of the country that could be up to a 40 per cent loss of rainfall … by around 2080,” he says.

Farmer Angus Whyte is still struggling to find his way out of drought. 

“There’s been good rains across a lot of NSW but it’s not by any means all of NSW,” says Mr Whyte who runs two properties in NSW near the South Australian and Victorian borders.

His 31,000 hectares is among the three per cent of NSW that remains drought affected according to official metrics.

Most of his farmland has received only a millimetre of rain in the past few months, and he hasn’t had an above-average rainfall for five years.

Mr Whyte would normally run up to 14,000 sheep on his property, but that number is down to 6000. Five hundred head of cattle has been cut entirely.

“We really adjust our numbers to keep in tune with the amount of feed we have,” he says.

His focus is making sure his property is ready when the rain does finally comes, “by retaining our ground cover, not eroding our landscape (and) having a good diversity of plants”.

Back in Queensland, Mr Collins says the past four years have been the driest he can remember.

When asked if he’s expecting rain, he quips that it’s not on his horizon. But he remains hopeful.

“La Nina years are supposed to be wetter at the end of their forecast period, from now until April … I’m still looking for signs that it will rain.”