Drought-stricken pastoralists in the Murchison, Gascoyne and through to the western Goldfields are facing some tough decisions in coming weeks due to a "perfect storm" of low rainfall coupled with a crash in cattle and sheep prices.
The issue of destocking and/or shooting livestock was raised at Pastoralists and Graziers' Association (PGA) pastoral committee and executive committee meetings last week.
PGA pastoral committee chairman Ashley Dowden said pastoralists from north of Carnarvon through to the Goldfields had so far missed out on their typical summer rainfall and many were experiencing their driest year since the 1990s.
He said stations situated east of the Goldfields and out to the Nullarbor had recently received about 100 millimetres of rain and pastoralists in that region were faring a lot better.
On the Dowden family's Challa station, out of Mount Magnet, which is run by Mr Dowden and his wife Debbie, it has been the fifth or sixth driest year on record.
"Last summer we had virtually no rain either," Mr Dowden said.
"For the past 18 months we have had about 85mm, when usually we would have upwards of 300mm in that period."
Mr Dowden said he had destocked about 450 head of his 1500-head cattle herd already and faced further destocking to about 500 head if rain did not arrive before the annual planned muster in April.
"That is a third of our typical carrying capacity," he said.
Mr Dowden said dams were dry and he had been forced to shoot some stock that had become bogged at the bottom of dams.
He said valuable underground water was also failing to make it to the surface as windmills struggled to pump from a declining below ground water table.
"A lot of our windmills are simply not pumping water to their full capacity - or not at all," he said.
Mr Dowden said exacerbating the problem was the low returns for cattle and sheep at present.
He said on the cattle front, lighter condition and female stock were the worst affected, reaping only about 20 cents a kilogram.
"Freight to Muchea to sell these animals is a lot more than that," Mr Dowden said.
"Some of the stock that is in better condition is getting 50-60c/kg, which at least covers the cost of the freight to market.
"And bulls are getting only $1.60-$1.80/kg when we need about $3/kg to break even."
Mr Dowden said, like many Murchison and Gascoyne stations, Challa relied on selling bulls to the export market and the situation was dire.
He said uncertainty in the sheep market about live exports and low prices were also affecting those pastoralists who ran sheep.
"With pastoralists reluctant to truck sheep and cattle to market, there might be no alternative to shooting stock if summer rain does not eventuate in the next few weeks," Mr Dowden said.
"Normally in a drought, people would destock.
"But the prices being received at present are no incentive to sell stock.
"The market for cattle is as bad as I have ever seen it and I have been in the business for many years."
Mr Dowden said the PGA was looking into ways the State government and Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) could assist drought-affected pastoralists.
He said it was problematic that the Pastoral Lands Board had no representation from the southern half of the State to provide advice to DPIRD.
"And the State government is all about building resilience, rather than providing funding for assistance when drought hits," he said.
"The most valuable measures would be funding infrastructure, such as self-trapping yards at water points.
"These yards would help with destocking more quickly than organising a full muster.
"It would also be valuable to provide money for investing in pasture and soil improvements so that stock could be fed for longer periods by having a healthy landscape.
"This would allow pastoralists to handle dry periods better."
Mr Dowden said the Farmers Across Borders - Hay for WA group was delivering hay from Esperance last week to donate to pastoralists in drought-affected areas of the State, which was a welcome initiative.
He said each station was getting 20 to 30 bales of much needed fodder.
Mr Dowden said the PGA was providing moral support to pastoralists and ensuring there was someone to talk to when needed.
"Morale is pretty low when you put so much effort into breeding and producing stock to then facing the prospect of destroying these animals," he said.
"It just tears your heart out."