Our weather is unquestionably the biggest challenge for Australia’s rural producers. And, despite state-of-the-art forecasting, Mother Nature always has a surprise in store.

Story By Amanda Burdon

With fierce fires burning across central Australia, cattle producers Christopher and Margo Nott are nervously awaiting the official start of the northern wet season. It’s months overdue. Good rains last year that ended almost a decade of drought have proven a double-edged sword. Conditions on Alcoota Station, north-east of Alice Springs, NT, are again tinder-dry and lightning strikes pose a constant threat given the abundant combustible fuel. They have managed the property for the Alcoota Aboriginal Corporation since 1993 – spanning some of the toughest years on record – and this one is shaping up as no different. “For producers that got burnt late last year and early this year, the situation is getting desperate,” Christopher says. “We’ve traditionally dealt with drought by being conservatively stocked and carrying enough feed for two dry years. But the long dry spell from 2000–2011 really tested us. We were forced to destock from 5000 head to our 1500 core breeders and had cattle agisted as far away as Mitchell and Longreach [in Queensland]. When you’re then forced to sell your breeders, you lose years and years’ worth of investment. It’s a long road back.”
In northern New South Wales, floodwaters are spilling across the vast floodplain at Garah and Bill Yates is desperately trying to shift some sheep to higher ground before nightfall. He doesn’t want a repeat of last November, when a 192-millimetre downpour stranded a waterlogged mob for 10 days. “I thought I was going to have to lift them with an SES chopper but I eventually got them out, poor and hungry and wormy,” Bill says. “In one month late last year we received 594mm, which is more than the annual average. Once this system is charged and all the channels are full, the swamps just keep widening and it can take months for the water to drain away. We now get floods every couple of years but not as big as this one.”
Way out west, 71-year-old Bob Porter and his daughter Fleur Grieve are seriously reviewing broad-acre farming traditions stretching back four generations. A drying trend over the past 30 years at “Riverside Ajana”, north of Geraldton, first put paid to Merino wool production. Now, with a large swathe of Western Australia expected to dry even further under climate-change projections, the family is again reassessing production. They have entered into a share-farming agreement, tourism venture and off-farm investments, taken the least viable land out of production, fenced off remnant bush and planted oil-mallee alleys to spread their business risks and safeguard their land. “Just when you think you begin to know the climate, it seems to change again,” Bob says. “I’ve spent a lot of time – too long – looking out west for rain and it’s miserable to be banking your life on a good crop. We’ve had to make changes to prolong our sustainability.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #82

Outback Magazine: Apr/May 2012