They don’t like to use the “D” word but there’s no escaping the ongoing drought that surrounds Sue and Jay Walker at Cumberland, west of Barcaldine.
They are among the many producers in western Queensland that either had virtually no rain this past summer, or only one fall that didn’t receive follow-up and so didn’t produce a reasonable pasture response.
So far this year they’ve recorded 50mm of rain, on top of 150mm for all of last year.
“We’re on a knife edge,” said Jay. “If there’s no winter rain we’ll have to sell more. We’ve already preg tested and sold all the dry cows.”
The 500 breeders are what remains of a herd of 900 that they took on the road in May 2015, the day that then-Prime Minister, Tony Abbott announced an $83m stimulus package designed to give life support to the ailing rural economy.
Since that day, the Walker’s large-framed matrons, the nucleus of the well-known Cumberland Santa Gertrudis stud, have become some of the most-travelled cattle in the state.
After nearly a year on the long paddock, a decision was made not to enter tick country in the Taroom-Wandoan region in early 2016, so the Walkers paid for short-term relief on country at Roma for three months to build up the strength of their herd before trucking them to South Australia.
It was at Cowarie, midway between Birdsville and Maree, in a 400 square mile paddock, they they found sanctuary for over a year.
They were one of 12 producers agisting country there, and they reluctantly decided to bring their cattle home last October, knowing that in a twice-yearly muster, their stock would have to go through the extreme heat of another Central Australian summer before they could access them again.
While not exactly Sturt’s Stony Desert, Jay estimates that 60 per cent of Cumberland and adjoining Garches have no Mitchell or buffel grass growing.
The cattle, all that’s left of the dormant Santa Gertrudis stud, are in paddocks that had some relief rain.
Because the cattle were away from home for two-and-a-half years and thanks to the unrelenting drought, the Walkers haven’t been able to classify their stud animals but reviving the stud remains a strong desire.
The Cumberland stud began in 1955, holding the distinction of breeding the first purebred Santa Gertrudis bull in Australia, Cumberland Answer.
Its first on-property bull sale, a first for the region, took place in 1958 and they’ve held 48 annual sales since then.
“We’ve seen a lot of droughts in that time,” Sue said.
“It’s like ‘Home and Away’ – sometimes I think we’ve been away more than at home.
“At one stage we thought of shutting the house here and renting in Roma to be closer to our cattle.”
The couple, which welcomed the first of the Burrumbuttock Hay Runners’ enormous hay relief convoys past their front gate in January 2016 with a sign saying “Welcome to the drought, thanks 4 caring”, never imagined there would still be as much need for drought relief two years later.
They didn’t take any hay at that time, having been destocked for nine months, but were very grateful for hay and a “black magic” mix from Aussie Helpers at the start of this year.
As well as the costs of agisting their cattle, their 1892 bore collapsed in the summer of 2016, and they’ve contributed to the costs of erecting 20km of exclusion fencing as part of a cluster group.
Jay explained that, with money available from the Queensland Feral Pest Initiative, they felt they had to get involved despite their financial circumstances.
“There’s the worry of dogs biting calves, and ever-present roos,” he said.
They said while the 2018 summer rain had been patchy, most of their neighbours were in a similar situation.
Budget aid call
Queensland Nationals Senator, Barry O’Sullivan, has recently called for a fresh federal government drought stimulus package, and the Walkers say that would be welcome for many.
After battling bureaucracy when their bore packed it in – a Catch 22 situation whereby they weren’t able to access emergency assistance from DAF or GABSI because they were considered destocked, but which meant they couldn’t bring stock home because there was no water – and having to outlay money to run water from a bore on their adjoining property, Garches, water assistance is top of their agenda.
“There’s been subsidies for fencing but it’s no good having that without water,” Sue said.
Even ecotourism ventures weren’t viable without water, she said.
“Jay’s 74 but doesn’t qualify for any pensions or allowances, and isn’t of an age group that can get an off-farm income.
“We’re not whinging, it’s a fact of life, but the drought means you just can’t move on.
“It’s hard to spend money to improve the place, you can’t get any projects going.”
Mr O’Sullivan said that while there had been some rain relief in some areas, for those who have not had relief, it could only be imagined, if the circumstances were bad in 2015, how bad they were in 2018.
He was seeking a meeting with the Prime Minister ahead of next week’s federal budget announcement.