THIS week we finished planting our winter crops and it is with some guilt that I have to admit that the season has been reasonably kind to me so far - although I am a little short of feed where the creek country is still under water.
I say 'with guilt' because I am so vividly aware of how fickle the weather remains and how many producers, even in close proximity to me, are staring down the barrel of another tough winter on the back of a recent string of failed seasons.
“The rest of the country has become too conditioned to the immitigable circumstances so many producers continue to face”
Before I start I would like to acknowledge the input of Sherrill Stivano in this discussion. Sherrill is a feedlotter and also the Queensland Rural Woman of the Year. It was a discussion with her about her perspectives on a range of issues that inspired this blog.
It seems to me that the rest of the country has become too “conditioned” to the enduring and immitigable circumstances that so many producers and their communities continue to face. In turn the urgency of the problem and the social cost are being ignored.
In the face of this enduring crisis, we have a Federal Minister for Agriculture who has publicly dismissed the need for, or will, to provide any further assistance to these affected small businesses and communities in general. The Minister is simply disconnected from the problem that is so central to his portfolio.
I am particularly offended by his betrayal given his public acknowledgement, in St George over a year ago, that the commercial manifestation of drought on agriculture and agricultural communities was a symptom of underlying structural problems in the sector.
“The ongoing decline in terms of trade and withdrawal of support for the sector has left it exposed ...”
Primarily, that the ongoing decline in terms of trade and simultaneous withdrawal of support for the sector has left it more exposed than at any time previously.
Given the Minister’s inability to address the structural problems I thought I would devote a little bit of time to one small aspect of drought mitigation for the pastoral sector. An aspect that the Minister might be able to comprehend and should be able to implement, in between chasing Johnny Depp’s dogs out of the country and sorting out Gina Rinehart’s family feud.
There should be a subsidy established to assist move drought-stricken livestock for sale, agistment or to feedlots for intensive feeding before there is an acute animal welfare or natural resource degradation situation. This subsidy should be a modification and extension of existing freight subsidies. Coupled with this subsidy, feedlots should be provided with fast-tracked approvals for licence extensions to accommodate increased numbers of drought stricken animals for custom feeding purposes.
The problem for many producers is that the decision to destock comes with significant cash costs, both in the immediate activity and in turn in the restocking process. There is a known cost up front for destocking, there is a relatively high degree of certainty around costs for restocking and there is an unknown risk in not destocking.
As a result destocking is often delayed and a minimalist approach is adopted, essentially increasing exposure to weather risk and creating a negative decision-making loop.
“Animal welfare is far more easily managed intensively than it is in an extensive and stressed pastoral landscape”
There are a broad range of compelling reasons to expedite the movement of animals out of drought-stricken landscapes and pre-empt the most devastating impacts of drought.
Despite the ill-informed campaigns waged against intensive livestock operations, animal welfare is far more easily managed intensively than it is in an extensive and stressed pastoral landscape.
Animal welfare is easily objectively assessed through performance parameters like feed conversion efficiency, animal mortality, animal morbidity and in breeding operations, fertility. Intensive animal industries like feedlots have excellent figures in terms of feed conversion efficiency, mortality and morbidity in comparison to drought stressed pastoral systems of production.
Destocking early means there is a far smaller chance of animals suffering from feed or water deficits. Furthermore, a staged destocking of non-breeding animals means it is easier to retain core breeding stock longer into a drought without compromising their fertility or general condition. Too often, the decision to destock is delayed until animals are not fit for sale or transport.
Additionally, moving livestock earlier in a forward condition or alternately custom feeding animals to forward store or prime condition will help offset the usual price reductions drought-affected animals are subject to on delayed destocking decisions.
This ability to retain and capture the real value of the animals will provide an offset against restocking costs as well as provide better financial resilience throughout the dry. Either way, capital is retained more successfully in drought-affected areas providing a community stimulus delaying layoffs and underwriting ongoing local activity.
The natural resource management implications of speeding up destocking decisions means some of our most fragile and extensive pastoral landscapes will have reduced environmental and ecological impacts of unnecessary pasture and landscape degradation. This is a significant cost associated with delayed destocking and slows down the recovery of the landscape once it finally rains. Therefore there is a measureable benefit in the intrinsic productivity of the landscape and a significant improvement in recovery of the landscape with earlier destocking.
There is also a likely financial benefit that extends past the farm gate in stimulating local economies at the point of destocking and also the post drought recovery.
The decision to destock provides an immediate stimulus to carriers and local staff while the improved landscape and productivity recovery time will also be reflected in local activity sooner after the season turns.
“Rural people invariably feel and reflect the damage to the natural systems they live in”
There are other benefits from providing incentive to destock earlier in dry times, but one of the most significant in my view is in the psychological benefits to producers and rural and regional communities as a whole.
Rural people, on or off the farm, invariably feel and reflect the damage to the natural systems they live in. No-one is immune to the sight of starving stock or denuded landscapes. Most rural people I know actively manage to improve the land they live on and there is a terrific emotional cost associated with the impact of drought.
Too often, people feel powerless in drought. While it is easy in hindsight to make all the right the decisions, the reality in real time is far more complex. De-risking the decision to destock, even in stages, empowers operators to make better decisions that improve animal welfare outcomes, natural resource outcomes, financial outcomes and ultimately improve the psychological resilience of the sector as well.
All of these benefits flow right through rural and regional communities and result in a positive feedback loop from a simple early intervention by government.
The government’s current drought mitigation measures are missing the point, and it is disgusting that the Minister brags about his effort here when so much of the current money is inaccessible to those who need it most.
The move away from the previous exceptional circumstances support measures was a Labor decision, but the reality is that this government still does not understand the problem or how important it is to the overall economy to resolve it.
That incompetence is costing the rural sector now and will continue to undermine its recovery for some time.
This stuff isn’t rocket science and it is not too late to fix things and improve the outcomes from the current scarce government resources. Simply, politicians who meddle in this space must be outed for their incompetence and motivated by political pressure from the ground to get it right.