New England North West drought: Willow Tree farmers' story

The McIntyres' cattle in February - conditions have only deteriorated since then.

The McIntyres' cattle in February - conditions have only deteriorated since then.

MONEY goes out as quickly as it comes in, there’s little way of knowing whether the huge choices being made are the right ones, and “there’s no enjoyment in life any more”.

That’s drought through the eyes of one Willow Tree farmer – and she feels like one of the “lucky” ones.

It may have changed their lives, but at least they can pay the bills, Therese McIntyre says.

However, “now there are little mouths to feed”, a long winter ahead, and all they can do is “pray we made the right decision”.

A common refrain when farmers share the challenges of their occupation is that it’s all part of what they signed up for; that they should put something aside for a rainy day, so to speak.

John McIntyre and faithful kelpie Katie get ready to dole out some more cottonseed, in this shot taken in February.

John McIntyre and faithful kelpie Katie get ready to dole out some more cottonseed, in this shot taken in February.

The Mcintyres are just one case in point of how that approach can only go so far.

Blow after unpredictable blow

The family – Therese, John and their teenage and adult children – live at Big Jacks Creek near Willow Tree.

They chose it 15 years ago partly because it “has always been a high-rainfall area … It’s nothing for us to have 40 inches, 30 inches”.

But “this year we’ve had less than 4.5 inches. I can’t even comprehend it. Last year we only had about 17 inches,” Mrs McIntyre said.

They’ve destocked over the past five years to 50 per cent of their property’s carrying capacity, deciding to hold on to only their core breeding Angus cattle, and they both work off-farm for some stability in income.

But hand-feeding the remaining 120 head has cost them $58,000 – “That’s my annual salary with tax out,” Mrs McIntyre said – in the past six months.

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Despite inconsistent rain, they had a shot at sowing 25 acres of oats and set their working dogs up on runs to protect it from feral deer.

But “after three weeks of it growing – it was up about 10 inches, probably – the deer just went past the dogs, they didn’t care”.

It’s been blow after unpredictable blow.

‘It’s all such a battle’

However, Mrs McIntyre said their story was “little compared to other people I read about whose whole livelihoods are at stake”.

“At least we have jobs. I do feel like a lucky person. I can pay my bills,” she said.

“It’s just the offset of what the drought means for people like me: there’s no enjoyment in life any more.

“I used to have a veggie garden and loved growing my own veggies, but I haven't had one in 12 months: the conditions have been so hard, there’s no time left to garden.

“The roses don’t flower any more, even though I water them every day.

“It’s all such a battle.”

‘All just praying for rain’

And it looks set to continue, with the Bureau of Meteorology predicting a drier-than-average winter in our part of the nation.

The McIntyres say they hope they made the right decision - to keep their core breeding Angus stock, continue to hand-feed and pray for some winter rain.

The McIntyres say they hope they made the right decision - to keep their core breeding Angus stock, continue to hand-feed and pray for some winter rain.

Mr McIntyre is out the door about 5am every day, crushing and mixing grain, working in his contract earthmoving business, then coming home after dark to hand-feed the cattle until he turns in about 10.30pm.

They have a stockpile of cottonseed that will last a few weeks more and just bought a load of Rhodes grass out of Queensland.

So Mrs McIntyre said they’d keep plugging away, hoping they hadn’t “made a really wrong decision and it’s all been a complete and utter waste of time, money and emotion”.

“I was a long way up in Queensland in 1981-82 in that horrific drought. That was hell,” Mrs McIntyre said.

“I haven’t seen it as bad as what saw up there, when we had walking skeletons of cattle.

“But I have seen some properties with some pretty poor-looking cattle.

“It’s close. If it doesn’t improve, we’ll be at that point, I believe, in our region.

“If we go the whole winter without rain and hit spring, it will be no different.

“We’re all just praying for rain. That’s all we can do – and support each other. There’s always someone a lot worse off.”

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