Here in eastern Australia many of us are experiencing what is being touted as a 1 in 100 year drought that has many people reeling. Some such as in central Queensland have been experiencing this for 6 years, in western NSW for 4 years and those of us slightly more fortunate only for about 2 years. 

Is drought the only form of adversity we as land stewards face though? No – we must include flooding, cyclones / hurricanes, and wild fires also. And these events are becoming more common and more intense in their damaging impact as the years pass. But for the sake of this blog we shall look at drought by itself.

How can we maximise our ability to recover when eventually rains return, when the waters and winds recede, or the fire has passed?

This is entirely dependent upon the management actions that were taken prior to and during the adverse weather event.

Slow moving events such as drought, or flood waters travelling slowly overland from perhaps hundreds of kilometres away are the easiest to proactively prepare for. But how many people choose to make the hard decisions? And what could some of those decisions look like?

Let’s take two different farmers. In the event of drought Farmer A is monitoring stocking rate in respect of rolling rainfall – coupled with knowledge of likely seasonal influences such as expected growth / dormancy times. This informs decisions on when to reduce stock numbers, and to contemplate complete destocking if necessary. These decisions are based on the need to conserve the productive potential of pastures and soils by ensuring they have the ability to respond when rains do come. 

Farmer A’s neighbour, Farmer B, makes the decision to plan to feed ‘essential’ livestock. This would ideally happen only in a very restricted sacrifice paddock in order to minimise negative impacts on vegetation and soil structure due to overgrazing. Why a sacrifice paddock? Many farmers / graziers open gates and let animals roam when feed and water resources become scarce. Often this is when substitutional feeding commences. I question the logic of this. Animals waste valuable energy seeking probably substandard pick to try and fill their bellies. This causes both soil degradation to the fragile dry soils and robs the ability of remnant vegetation to have sufficient reserves to respond to rainfall when it arises.

Is feeding a good option? I am at a loss to understand how – unless the farmer has a huge tax problem they are trying to reduce! Particularly with respect to drought as we never know when it may end. People get in a cycle of spending. To a point where they believe they cannot afford to stop. The fear is they will never recover the costs of the feed already used if they decided to sell livestock as the drought worsens. And yet the cost of feed keeps rising, and the bills and stress levels keep building, and the land becomes more degraded and unable to support production when the rains finally come. And then the rains come – and ground that is now bare repels the water like water off a ducks back. And now we have a flood – and everyone in Australia at any rate knows that all droughts end with a flood!

And now we have a different problem? Or do we?

Now the ground instead of being dry, compacted, dusty and largely bereft of living groundcover is briefly boggy. Cleansed of any residual litter that still survived the overgrazing, it quickly becomes dry and like concrete due to lack of water infiltration; helping to push us more quickly towards the next drought! This is an incredible treadmill to enter onto. The faster we run in this space the faster we have to run until eventually ill health or rising debt forces us to take a break from farming!

But what of Farmer A, who reduced numbers or destocked early? Are they in this same position – desperate to find more feed? Are they watching their productive capability – their pastures and soil degrading and blowing or washing away? Chasing ever harder after livestock that are getting poorer and declining in value every day as the costs of feeding them are growing every day? Are they on the same treadmill? No!

Farmer A has a landscape that still has good groundcover with roots as deep into the soil as the tops of the plants are high, enabling them to access much more soil moisture when it arises. The surface temperature of their ground is insulated from the baking sun and searing winds to a marked degree – protecting the soil life that makes production possible when eventually the season makes a turn for the better. When the rains come most of the moisture is either absorbed by a still functioning soil, or its passage across the soil surface is slowed by the litter still anchored via its roots– allowing greater infiltration and reducing erosion.

The extra moisture that enters the soil enables the plants; that were never totally exhausted by grazing their crown to the ground; to respond more quickly. The growth response is longer too, as a result of their greater root area and depth, and larger above-ground solar panels.

Same weather conditions – different responses. Is one response right? And the other wrong? And are these appropriate questions anyway?

I believe there is no right and no wrong – at least not without the benefit of hindsight and then judgement does not serve us anyway. 

What if Farmer A sells their livestock and the rains come the week after? Well – s/he gets the opportunity to purchase even better ones; or to spell their property for a period enabling even better production capability in the future. Whatever s/he chooses they are probably in a healthier frame of mind to make sound choices as they have not had the extra stress that drought feeding creates; whether that be physical, emotional, or financial.  

Farmer B? Farmer B has created the perfect opportunity – if they come through the stress, health issues and financial problems created. They can learn whether the decisions they made enabled their property and business to continue moving forward; increasing resilience and production into the future. Or whether they have now learnt something about what not to do in the event of future drought conditions arising.

To reflect, there is no right and no wrong. Both experiences are only useful as learning tools for the future. We have to decide what our future is to look like. Do we want a future that is about lifting the productivity and profitability of our farm enterprise, so that it will capably support our dreams for the future? 

If so, have the actions taken during this ongoing drought moved us towards that goal? Or further away? 

Written by Angus Deans.

Angus is available for coaching to empower you to create a thriving, profitable and regenerative farm business and can be contacted by phoning +61 0428 729 242 or emailing angusd@integritysoils.com