Pastoralists in Western Australia’s remote Gascoyne region say they are in the midst of one of the worst droughts they have ever experienced.
At Challa Station, 600 kilometres north-east of Perth, Ashley and Debbie Dowden have been forced to start bottle feeding calves for the first time.
2023 was one of the driest seasons at Challa Station since records began almost 150 years ago.
“Since I have been involved in the running of the property this is by far the worst season that we’ve had,” Mr Dowden said.
“It’s the worst on record in 30 years, and I think it is the sixth worst since we started keeping records back in the 1880s.”
For the Dowdens, 2023 has been a shocker, with the property receiving only a few small rain showers totalling 80 millimetres of rain for the year.
“We’re having to cart water to places that we have never had to cart water to before and it is a big concern,” Mr Dowden said.
The weather conditions have become so punishing, pastoralists to the north-west in Murchison have reportedly been forced to shoot cattle to take pressure off their feed supplies.
Driest on record for multiple locations
The poor season is not just anecdotal for these cattle stations.
The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has confirmed 2023 was the driest on record for multiple locations in the Gascoyne, including Shark Bay and Carnarvon.
“[2023 was] well below average, not just for northern WA but when we touch on southern parts as well, very below average,” meteorologist Jessica Lingard said.
“Carnarvon picked up just 54mm of rainfall throughout 2023, the average is 222mm — so they only received about a quarter of their normal rainfall.
“[In] Shark Bay unfortunately the story is a little more dire, with only 20mm of rainfall reported across the entire year.
“The average is 190mm there, so [that’s] only … about 10 per cent of their normal rainfall.”
It has also been a very late start to the wet season for northern WA, with Broome recording just 1.4mm of rainfall from November 1 to January, making it the driest start to the wet season since 2011.
For only the third time ever, absolutely no rainfall was reported at Broome in the entire month of December.
It hasn’t happened in 37 years.
The first half of 2023 was one of the wettest on record, largely due to the impact of ex-Tropical Cyclone Ellie, which saw Western Australia’s worst floods on record.
But due to a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD), Ms Lingard said the rainfall dried up, and she did not expect the state’s fortunes to turn anytime soon.
“There is a higher chance, a 40 to 50 per cent chance, that the next three to four months of rainfall is going to be in the lowest 20 per cent of all years.”
Pastoralists are hoping for cyclonic rainfall to bring relief, with all eyes on a monsoon trough brewing off the coast of the Northern Territory.
However, it is not expected to bring effective rain, which can be used by plants, to the west of WA.
Compounding conditions, culling cattle
Further adding to the pain of dry conditions, rising input costs and a depressed cattle market have forced pastoralists to sell cattle at a loss.
Jimba Jimba station’s Will Baston said transport costs were a major pinch point.
“For instance, you might spend $9,000 on a road train of hay just for the transport, and then $12,000 for the hay,” he said.
“So, a big chunk of the costs is actually getting materials and feed to your stations.”
Jimba Jimba received 99mm during the year, half of its annual average of 200mm.
Although it was not a record low, Mr Baston said the broader market conditions, in addition to a 2022 bushfire destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares across the Gascoyne, had compounded, leaving producers in their worst position in memory.
Shooting cattle to reduce feed pressure had begun on properties in the Murchison, according to Mr Baston.
He said it was a last resort but “definitely an option” for Jimba Jimba station.
“It’s something we’ve got to look at if we don’t get any effective rain coming through our summer,” he said.
“If we can find a home to agist the animals somewhere we will, but if we can’t we’ll have to pare back and reduce numbers further than we have.
“You need to match your cattle with your feed on offer.”
Calls for freight subsidies, government help
WA rural charity Farmers Across Borders has begun transporting hay to the Gascoyne, but donations are limited due to a poor cropping season in the south.
Mr Baston has called on the state government to help out, suggesting freight subsidies for producers needing to bring fodder into the station and truck cattle off the land.
“It’s not just pastoralists, it should be all farmers — we’re seeing dry conditions from the Great Southern all the way up to the Pilbara,” Mr Baston said.
Mr Baston said he was particularly concerned about sourcing and funding the transportation of cattle fodder for the region.
“There’s a need to move a large amount of feed, and if this dry continues into 2024, the concern I’ve got is, where is this feed coming from?” he said.
The state government did not answer questions or respond to Mr Baston’s calls for assistance, but said in a statement it “appreciates this is a difficult time for pastoralists”.
“There are a number of support services available and we encourage people to reach out for help,” the statement said.
In the meantime, primary producers in Western Australia continue to remain hopeful that the next rain is not far away.
“It will rain again,” Mr Dowden said.
“All we have to do is dig in and hang on, and hopefully get through and be here when it does.”
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