Hope flows back into the north

Hope flows back into the north


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Fresh river water mixes with the muddy banks of the Gulf of Carpentaria coastline.

Fresh river water mixes with the muddy banks of the Gulf of Carpentaria coastline.

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THE Gulf is still waiting for its Big Wet but already talk is that the people who live there have started off 2015 in a better frame of mind than the previous two seasons, thanks to the surge in cattle prices.

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THE Gulf is still waiting for its Big Wet but already talk is that the people who live there have started off 2015 in a better frame of mind than the previous two seasons, thanks to the surge in cattle prices.

The economy of scale offered by the big country up north means that many of the calf factories are still stocked up and looking to both restocker interest further south and overseas live export markets to come shopping.

Queensland Country Life paid a quick visit to the region last week to talk to mayors and cattle producers at Camooweal, Burketown, Normanton and Georgetown.

The scene at the million-acre Thorntonia station, 100km north east of Camooweal, is one being repeated all across the Gulf - green pick in some paddocks, waiting for February and the hope of general rain, and good numbers of young cattle putting on weight.

Lloyd and Wendy Hick own the property on the Queensland-Northern Territory border and say 30mm received a couple of weeks ago had been their biggest fall.

"It's a good start if we get rain in February," Lloyd said. "We've had three ordinary seasons in a row and the country needs a good soak. We were in a similar situation last year and it didn't turn up."

Lloyd says he hears a similar story to the north in Burketown - all have had some rain but are still experiencing a light January.

On the eastern side of the Gulf, Barry Hughes tells a story of patchy rain around Georgetown and erosion and seed bank losses in places where big falls were recorded at the start of the year.

"In places like Forsyth, Einasleigh, Kidston, where they had 70, 80, 90mm - you welcome the moisture but it can add to your woes.

"With the variable soil types in our part of the world, the hard clays don't handle that sort of rain and had little grass cover to hold anything up.

"In a lot of cases the ground is baked and, when water hits, it runs off at a million miles an hour."

Barry says it will be important for producers to keep up the practice of matching stocking rates to rainfall, especially with not a lot of rain projected for coming months.

"February and March is when the Gulf gets its rain but there's not a lot of time left to make decisions," he said.

Breeders are still in fairly poor condition and although younger cattle have come through 2014's dry, young heifers will struggle to conceive, he added.

Because of their low body weight and the time needed to lay down weight, there is a concern that export prices may not hold up long enough for growers to take full advantage of the situation.

The whole supply and demand cycle is still a major concern to Barry and he has welcomed news that Senator Barry O'Sullivan is planning a visit to the US in coming months to study that country's Packers and Stockyard Act

"Easter is when the Gulf starts to muster," he said. "Interest payments will be looming at the end of June and people will need to have cattle going through the yards to make payments.

"There's good money for all weight increments at present but that's driven by a lack of supply.

"Once everyone starts to roll, the challenge for the industry will be to maintain prices.

"The system our industry works under is failing us and I applaud those who are looking into why."

For Carpentaria Shire Mayor and Delta Downs board member Fred Pascoe, the deal negotiated by the federal government with China that will see more cattle go to that country is helping confidence in the Gulf.

"We might not get a lot of cattle into China but it's made other countries compete," he said.

"Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia have been buying a bit - it's been good for our port at Karumba.

"The China deal has made our cattle a lot more precious."

He said the Gulf had two luxuries - it was home to the "big boys" in both cattle numbers and property size, and the region always received rain of some sort, even if it was not always enough.

"A lot of us are holding cattle rather than selling them half done," he said. "We like to turn off 280-300kg cattle, and our little fellows are getting some green grass into them at the moment."

Lloyd Hick is happy to have maintained his breeder numbers thanks to his big rough land mass riding out the dry better than the black soil downs further south, but is not sure how he will ever get back to running older bullocks.

"I can't afford to go without an income for a year for that to happen, but they give you security. You can sell down if it does get dry - with little cattle only, there's no options."

He is also aware of the difficulty being experienced by people trying to restock properties at current prices. Lloyd is keeping a close eye on land values, betting that a few properties will come on the market once it rains, as people choose to leave the industry rather than refinance.

"If there's too many it might affect the market - everyone is waiting to see."

Both he and Barry Hughes describe the feeling in the Gulf as one of restrained optimism.

"We know there's a lot of vacant cattle land to the south, and the only way to populate it is to come into the Gulf and buy females, whether it be cow and calf units, PTIC cows or even heifers," Mr Hughes said.

"At the same time, business in Georgetown is very flat and people expect it to continue that way. It's becoming the norm.

"Rural counsellors are doing their best to help people get working plants up and operating but it's still a long way back."

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