As we enter 2020, the rain still has not fallen in the quantities we require to ensure our industry remains at the forefront of Australia’s and the Territory’s key trade markets, particularly those in South East Asia.
This means the key driver of our primary production market, live export of cattle, may not reach the same numbers we have seen in recent years. We export 40 per cent of Australia’s live cattle through the Port of Darwin. A consequence of reduced supply but maintained demand is beef price escalation.
Increased prices create a new set of market concerns beyond when the next rain will come. We will see challenges to maintain market share and we will see consumer support tested through higher than average prices.
Near the end of 2019, the Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association took a group of VIPs on a road trip, encompassing regions of the Territory that have been exposed to extreme drought for a prolonged period of time. The group, which included former NT Chief Minister Shane Stone, who had just been appointed responsible for National Drought, explored what individual pastoralists had implemented to not only manage livestock during these deteriorating conditions, but also to minimise economic, social and environmental costs and losses associated with drought.
The Northern Territory has a history of these extreme climatic fluctuations. The 2018-19 wet season saw record-breaking temperatures and the dry season in 2019 was warmer than average. In 2019, the Territory also received 48 percent less rain than the long-term average, making it one of the driest years ever recorded. The fact that the rainfall in the Northern Territory in 2019 was at its lowest in decades and the temperatures the hottest in more than 100 years paints a grim picture.
Nearly all of the cattle in the Territory are grass fed, so you can imagine the challenge of having no rain to rejuvenate pastures or recharge usually reliable surface water points. In recent years many pastoralists in the Territory have invested heavily in water infrastructure, including bores, storage tanks and water troughs, to ensure there is consistent fresh water supply for stock.
They have also purchased feed and “lick” – a premade wet or dry mix of protein and minerals – to supplement the lack of pasture and keep the herd healthy. Add on the freight of transporting these goods to remote locations and you start to imagine the huge cost associated with maintaining our herd.
Environmentally, dry land opens itself to erosion and while it does not rain, wind accentuates the removal of the top soil. When it eventually does rain, the lack of ground coverage will add to the soil erosion problems because there is a lack of plant roots systems to keep it together.
In other parts of Australia this is going to be a major problem when the drought breaks. In the NT, due to our land management practices linked to the establishment of wide nature corridors, we will lessen this type of impact. It will be experienced but not on the scale we may see in the southern part of Australia.
The dry landscape does not get much worse than Lake Wood on Newcastle Waters Station, just north of Elliot on the Barkly Tablelands. Lake Wood is 350 square kilometres in an average year, reaching up to 1000 square kilometres in flood. The lake is used in part for recreation all year round, but not anymore. Lake Wood is dry. Locals struggle to remember when it has stayed this dry for this long.
In the Territory, a one size fits environment view does not work. There are too many factors in play, which separate how a Territory cattle producer manages their land compared with those in southern regions or even neighbouring states north of the 26th parallel.
It is not that the NT pastoral industry claims to be able to manage these climatic conditions more effectively, it is that our response time to deteriorating conditions occurs much more rapidly, decreasing the magnitude of drought losses and reducing exposure to further vulnerability.
Future-proofing for droughts in a public policy debating arena that is focused primarily on climate change often misses what is already being accomplished by both pastoralist and industry. The balance in the debate can be lost and knee jerk reactions based off ill-informed statements rarely provide any real solutions.
All this brings me back to the resilience of Territory cattle producers.
When pastoralists gather in numbers greater than two, one of the first questions asked is: “Have you had any rain?” The answer is usually a shake of the head or a “not much.”
The next question is more often than not: “How are you coping?” This isn’t necessarily a mental health well-being question, but more a pastoral management question.
Regardless, it triggers a conversation around the purchasing of supplement feed, destocking, land management and the BOM long-range forecast in the search for hope. All of them critical in managing the impacts of drought economically, socially and environmentally.
And while it is not a mental health well-being session conducted by a professional, an interaction like this is the fuel that recharges the resilience. An opportunity to share a common experience, gain an insight into whether there are other avenues to try to minimise impacts and most importantly gain reassurance you are on the right path. TQ