THE great wildebeest migrations between the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Maasai Mara in Kenya are all about rain, grass and water.
Australia has nothing similar in terms of its wild animal population but this year due to a monsoonal trough that brought huge rainfall and flooding to a wide swathe of northern Queensland, it would seem we are on the cusp of a domestic cattle migration of African proportions.
Six years of drought has taken a lot of cattle out of the north with many properties reported to be down to 30-40pc of normal carrying capacity. If that was not enough, the length of time those remaining drought-weakened cattle (and native wildlife) had to stand in floodwater and endure cold temperatures was more than they could endure and early reports suggest losses in the hundreds of thousands.
That leaves the north with a lot of space for livestock and once the floodwaters recede and the country dries out that space can be expected to be taken up through transfers, agistment and purchases from those parts of the Barkly Tableland, central/southern Queensland and New South Wales still very much in the grip of drought.
According to a prominent north-Queensland producer interviewed by national media on Monday, the transition from boggy paddocks to green grass will take only a couple of weeks now that sunshine has returned. How ironic that just four weeks ago this column described how Winton agent and producer Tom Brodie was desperately searching for country to agist or purchase for drought-affected stock in his district.
He described it then as an impossible task but nevertheless spent three days searching just on the slim chance of an opportunity. He said at the time that rain was desperately needed by end of January or early February so it seems the weather gods were listening but unfortunately overplayed their hand.
I caught up with Tom again early this week and he said the devastation was hard to get the mind around. He said when it started everything looked rosy with 6-7 days of beautiful rain to the north of Winton. But further to the north and north-west it was another matter.
“We were hoping the forecasts were wrong but every day we kept hearing about these big falls,” Tom said.
“The worst part about it was everyone knew something was happening but we couldn’t do anything about it.”
Richmond and Julia Creek were in the path of floodwater from the upper Flinders catchment and then with the addition of inflows from McKinlay and Cloncurry where falls of 20-25 inches (500-600mm) were recorded, massive inundation of property to the north occurred as the water found its way to the Gulf.
They kept copping it day after day Tom said and it just killed the cattle. Unlike the slow, progressive nature of drought which allows time to plan, agist, feed, place cattle in feedlots or sell, this is different.
In an instant, income for the next 12 months has gone. With normal everyday expenses still to be paid and nothing coming in it is inevitable that core debt will build up in working accounts. On top of that is the need for funds for essential capital outlays such as reinstatement of dams, fencing and associated property infrastructure as well as replacement of livestock.
The resultant increase in overall debt burden may be untenable for some. The alternative of taking cattle on agistment offers immediate cash flow and some breathing space to get things back into order as grass now seems assured for the next 12 months. As well Tom has discovered there seems to be some extraordinary goodwill associated with the vast number of enquiries he is receiving for agistment. One southern enquirer volunteered to come up with his workman and spend three to four weeks fencing as well as paying full rate for the agistment.
Tom described this as a wonderful gesture and is pleased that the idea seems to be taking root as people who perhaps had considered only their own needs in searching for agistment come to understand the enormity of the physical and emotional plight of those on the other side of the transaction. When I spoke to him on Monday Tom had fielded 27 phone enquiries and his son Jack (who is part of the business) had taken many calls as well. They range from northern NSW right up through Cunnamulla, Quilpie, Charleville, Blackall, Muttaburra, Ilfracombe and the Northern Territory.
Past droughts have seen crowded stock routes and drovers taking big mobs over vast distances but the circumstances of this event point to it being almost exclusively a mechanised migration. Road transport operators look set for a busy period.
Quick restart for Townsville meatworks
PROCESSING which got off to an uncharacteristically early start in Townsville came to a shuddering halt when the monsoonal trough started to unleash its torrent in the last few days of January.
Recognising the importance of providing support to those who need money at this time and have cattle to sell, a JBS spokesperson said the company wants to recommence as soon as possible. He said road access will be the key with rail having its usual flood-related issues heightened by the derailment of an 80-wagon freight train on the main line at Nelia.
Early in the week the highway between Cloncurry and Richmond was still closed and secondary roads need time to dry out. But once cattle can get to the highway it should create a supply line and allow a restart. While next week looks overly ambitious he was hopeful the week after may be a chance.
Central and southern Queensland meatworks were not affected. Rates there remain unchanged with 4-tooth ox showing 520-525c/kg and heavy cow at 445-450. Meanwhile it just will not rain in southern parts and the window for pasture growth is rapidly diminishing.