NT drought saving north west's bacon

Stock-based north west businesses keep cash flow through NT drought


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Big squeeze: Cloncurry Saleyards joint manager Nathan Keyes believes business through the yards will be well below average in the short term. Pictures: Sally Cripps.

Big squeeze: Cloncurry Saleyards joint manager Nathan Keyes believes business through the yards will be well below average in the short term. Pictures: Sally Cripps.

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It's a harshly ironic situation but a drought is what's bringing work and an income to many of the businesses that deal in livestock affected by the February weather event in the north west.

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It's a harshly ironic situation but a drought is what's bringing work and an income to many of the businesses that deal in livestock affected by the February weather event in the north west.

Both independent agent Peter Dowling and Cloncurry Saleyards managers Nathan and Dustin Keyes have been kept busy thanks to the big dry in the Northern Territory.

Mr Dowling's Cloncurry-based business, which stretches east to Hughenden, south to Jericho and west to Daly Waters in the Northern Territory, has only sold six decks of cattle from his Queensland area since the disaster.

The drought to the west has enabled not only himself but livestock carriers to move their business temporarily west.

"We're talking the VRD region, down across the Barkly, all the way across to Camooweal - trucks have literally been pouring out of there for two months," he said.

Cloncurry agent Peter Dowling, pictured with an Ann Britton print of the Burke River at Boulia, has sold only six decks of cattle from the Queensland portion of his business since February.

Cloncurry agent Peter Dowling, pictured with an Ann Britton print of the Burke River at Boulia, has sold only six decks of cattle from the Queensland portion of his business since February.

It's a similar story for Nathan Keyes who says it's "full steam ahead" at present.

"For February and March, after the rain, it was very dormant and not too much was happening," he said.

"But then there's been a few people restocking, not big numbers, but the Barkly being as dry as what it is has kept us hopping.

"That's where the majority of the cattle have been coming from."

Related: Cattle restocking underway

Coupled with this, the first of the cattle from the Gulf have been moving down to their fattening blocks or to sale, processing through the yards.

But it's been a different story from the east where movement has been non-existent.

Mr Keyes said that at this time of year live export cattle would normally be moved north from Richmond and Hughenden regions, as well as from as far south as Longreach.

"I think those live export orders have been filling up from the Barkly heading north to Darwin and then Townsville's got their usual customers from the east," he said.

"Initially it was very quiet but we've been busy with cattle moving from the west.

"That's probably only going to go on for another couple of months and that'd be as many as they can actually move.

"They'll hold onto what they can out there, maybe heifers for next year to keep the numbers going."

In the twist of fate nature throws out, it was fortunate for growers right through from the Barkly Tableland to Alice Springs to have somewhere to move their cattle as a result of the flooding in Queensland.

"Otherwise there'd be a massive cluster, and we need all of it - live exporters, meat processors to be moving, and the feedlot operators to be operating to handle these situations," Mr Keyes said, recalling the live export ban seven years ago. "It'd be a forced drought otherwise, a man-made one."

Channel Country flooding also meant there was capacity in that area to take cattle, many of them internal company transfers that were moving through the Cloncurry yards.

Despite the current work rate, Mr Keyes believed his business would be well below average in the short term and 'very ordinary' within two to three years.

Related: Long hard road to recovery

He said there wasn't a lot they could do except hope the federal government livestock recovery plan would give people the means to restock properly.

"It'll give them a bit of a chance, for those that can't really afford to get back into it, at least they'll have a second chance," he said.

Mr Dowling said agents that were restricted to an area or ones that had bought into a partnership would be doing it the toughest in his line of work.

As far as affected graziers went, he described the situation as inconsistent, depending on individual operations and the type of country grazed.

"Some country's come away, particularly south of the line," he said.

"The country to the north that got the water, the flood, and the weather are probably the ones that have been most affected in the property big picture.

"They've lost the cattle, their infrastructure is shot to bits.

"Whilst the government's come forward very quickly with a good package, people's situations are going to be very varied."

In some cases it was only follow-up rain in March that gave people a season but Mr Dowling said many had been proactive earlier than that, taking advantage of a cattle price slump early in the year.

Acknowledging the recovery package was the biggest ever offered in the pastoral industry in Australia, Mr Dowling said there may still be some people unable to benefit from its current structure.

"Contract musterers - they've got all their money, their spare cash, invested in cattle and there doesn't seem to be much allocation for them yet, as is there none for businesses in the little towns.

"I'm one of those so I'll watch what happens."

He said the recovery plan relied on a trickle-down effect, starting with graziers, getting them back on their feet so they would spend money back in their local towns.

Related: Communities experience mixed blessings

"But when you look at the figures that say out of that $75,000 that was available, only 30-40 per cent of the people that were eligible applied, that trickle's going to be very slow."

"But it's a tough job (to find a perfect system)," he said.

Nathan and Dustin haven't been able to put a number on stock losses from their personal business yet, saying only they were "probably better than some but not real flash".

They are hoping to access financial assistance.

"I think it'll work out alright. It won't get us back to where we were but it'll certainly help," Nathan said.

"What the government's done is pretty good. Back in the '70s, when they had the last major flood I don't think there was any helping hand."

Read more: Gulf towns struggle in aftermath

Queensland Country Life documented this story and plenty of others in our souvenir edition on Thursday, May 30.

Be sure to pick up your copy to commemorate this monumental event in our state's history.

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