Drought-hit farmers fear hay supply will soon run out
Australia may run out of fodder by autumn, leaving farmers brought to their knees by drought to watch their livestock starve.
Experts raised the alarm as more than a thousand NSW farmers missed out on cheap water from the federal government to grow food for animals.
Farmers are stockpiling as much hay and other products as they can to get through winter as the little supply left from the 2019-20 harvest is not expected to meet market demand.
Australian Fodder Industry Association chief executive John McKew said securing hay and other products was becoming more difficult "week by week".
"I would anticipate by the start of autumn, which is not far away, that current fodder supplies will be very, very tight," he said.
"(Fodder) is now being considered more a resource like water, fertiliser or seed - the importance of it has grown because the long term drought and fires have shown us it's not an infinite product available whenever we need."
Mr McKew said only "widespread, enduring, good soaking rain" could take the pressure off the market, but Bureau of Meteorology forecasters estimate at least four months of wet weather would be needed to break the drought now.
NSW Farmers President Peter Arkle said he had "grave fears" about a shortage of fodder, which would be a "hugely confronting scenario" for the struggling industry.
Last year the Morrison government announced it would pay South Australia $98.4 million to cover the cost of switching on its desalination plant so 100 gigalitres of water could be taken out of the Murray River system upstream and sold at a cheap rate for farmers to grow fodder.
The program - touted to help grow up to 120,00 tonnes of food - was so popular there were more than 4,000 applications for the first round of 40 gigalitres
A random lottery system selected about 20 per cent of applications from each state, but did not consider that some areas were harder hit by drought.
Despite NSW being the hardest hit by drought, just 283 NSW farmers of the 1574 who applied to buy water at a reduced rate from the government to grow fodder were successful.
They shared in 14.1 gigalitres while downstream in Victoria 504 farmers were given a total of 25.2 gigalitres.
In South Australia - where water allocations are at 100 per cent - 13 farmers got a share in 650 megalitres.
"It would appear it's been a fairly simplistic approach to allocations not considering needs in different parts of the Murray Darling Basin," Mr Arkle said.
"We'll be engaging with the federal government to better understand how these decisions have been made … to ensure that this water can be equitably shared based on need going forward."
There is no requirement for farmers to sell the fodder grown with cheap water into the wider market, and the remainder of the 60 gigalitres won't be available until the 2020/21 financial year.
A spokesman for Drought Minister David Littleproud said the government could not bring forward the second round because Adelaide's desalination plant would not have produced enough water to cover the lost supply in that time.
Bethungra farmer John Hogan said he'd normally have a two-year supply of fodder and grain stored to feed his sheep, but the 100 tonnes of barley and 200 tonnes of hay he's saved at the moment was nowhere near that.
"We've had three failed crops, three years where we haven't really cut any surplus hay," he said.
Mr Hogan said while there were other farms worse off, the drought had impacted the ability of growers in traditionally safer regions like Wagga Wagga from producing extra fodder to top up the market.
"In previous years I've been able to sell hay to different areas that might have been dry, and when I've been dry I've been able to buy it from nearby, but this drought is so wide-ranging that's not possible," he said.
"And the fires are all going to make it worse, there's going to be an even greater need."
Mr Hogan said the government's fodder growing program was a "drop in the ocean" compared to the needs of farmers this deep into the drought.
FORECASTS POLES APART FOR DROUGHT-BUSTING RAIN
By Clare Armstrong and Adella Beaini
At least four months of sustained and widespread rain is needed to break the drought, despite the return to neutral of an El Nino-style weather system that significantly impacts Australia.
The unprecedented dry conditions - fuelled by a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and a warmer stratosphere over Antarctica pushing more hot westerly winds across NSW - have eased this month, but that won't help farmers yet, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
"Last year we had very strong climate drivers that were influencing very dry and warm conditions, particularly the second half of the year, and in December we saw quite extreme temperatures," climatologist Felicity Gamble said. "When we see all our main drivers in a neutral phase, it means our climate outlook won't show a strong shift either towards the dry or wet weather."
Since the beginning of 2020, conditions have eased compared to those experienced last year.
Ms Gamble said there was a 50 per cent chance of getting above-average rainfall between February and March.
"We are seeing a slighter wetter average, despite the neutral outlook," she said.
"Then, between March and May, we are still seeing a fairly neutral outlook and an equal chance of either a wet or dry period up until the end of autumn."
The IOD is one of the key drivers of Australia's climate and can have a significant impact on agriculture when in the "positive" phase, as it often results in less rainfall and higher temperatures.
According to BOM a "strong" positive IOD phase peaked in October 2019 before dropping in late December. The IOD has since returned to "neutral", meaning the temperatures across the tropical Indian Ocean should have little impact on Australia's climate, but significant rainfall is still required to end the drought.
"Any rainfall does help the farmers in drought conditions, but given how long we have seen these dry average conditions we would need to see rainfall in consecutive months," Ms Gamble said.