Green drought mayday

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Lechelle Earl, owner/editor

Green drought mayday

Limestone Coast farmers are facing the very real prospect of a “green drought” due to a combination of weather factors.

As the region struggles through one of its driest Mays on record, the 2024 rainfall total to date is also sitting at less than half the yearly average, almost 150mm down on the same time in 2023. 

The traditional break in the season usually occurs around Anzac Day, however the region has been left flushed with green tinges due to January rains and subsequent sunshine, with the 2024 break yet to occur.

As of yesterday Mount Gambier had recorded only 9mm of rain for the month, well down on the May monthly average of 73.8mm.

The last time Mount Gambier recorded such a low May rainfall was in 1996 when 10.4mm of rain fell.

So far this year Mount Gambier has recorded 108.4mm, compared with the year to date average of 216.3mm.

This time last year the Blue Lake city had registered 255.6mm.

Last month was recorded as the eighth-driest April on record (since 1900) for South Australia as a whole.

While the wettest area of the state in April was the Lower South East, with Mount Gambier recording a monthly total of 49.8mm, it was still below the site’s April average of 54.1mm.

Mount Gambier also recorded its driest February on record since 1956 this year with a monthly rainfall total of 0.6mm.

Castec Rural Supplies agronomist Isabella Baker said fears were growing for the season, as the very real prospect of a green drought emerged.

“There is still green about, but there is nothing growing, all the green is actually dormant, there’s not enough growth,” she said.

“There’s still sunshine, that’s why it’s sticking green, but it’s dormant, so there is no active growth.

“It’s not too late yet, it’s whether it’s going to be a false break as such, but it will be too late if we do not get another follow up rain and only get 5-10mm they are talking about this week.

“We will need another follow up rain within two weeks.”

Miss Baker said she was concerned that farmers will panic and start sowing their crops, which would rely on that follow up rain.

“That will mean we will run out of moisture, it will be a cold and dry winter so nothing will grow,” she said.

“A lot more feed will have to be brought in, they will need hay and grain from elsewhere unless people have got their shed stocks full.

“I’m finding a lot of people do not, there is enough to get them through until the end of June.

“Most people have had to buy in hay and grain, they are also using things like a lambing booster and lick blocks … because they are absolutely not getting enough nutrients from their current pastures as there is not enough growth.”

Miss Baker said the lack of rainfall would have far reaching implications, with genuine concerns raised by farmers.

“Some are panicked, like extremely panicked, others are taking it like it is, a lot of people are tightening up their finances that’s for sure, they are not spending as much as they would, they are just keeping their cards close to their chest,” she said.

“They will not be sowing extra paddocks … just the necessities. They will still have funds, they are being a bit more cautious as to where they are spending, they will be saving it for things like hay which will have to be brought in from further north which will mean a lot more freight costs.

“A lot of people keep saying it’s the worst they have seen it since 1967, when it was a drought and then another drought.”

Miss Baker said there were landholders who were irrigating in order to keep crops going to provide feed for lambing ewes.

“People that have the option are irrigating, that’s for sure so they can still get some really good pasture in, they are rotating their lambing stock onto those paddocks,” she said.

“Then people are irrigating their cropping paddocks, like wheats and canola, some people are holding off on canola as it relies on water. They are watering where they can, some people are very lucky to have pivot access.

“We just need the follow up rain otherwise it acts as a false break, with the sunshine being how nice it is, we do need that rain as it is drying it out so it cannot grow any more, we had those early rains in January and then it just stopped from there,

“We are seeing lots of frosts, and while frosts and warm days are great for lambing, it’s not good for anything to grow.

“It’s not looking too flash … they are saying mid to late June we should see a break, normally we would be seeing rain all the way through, there is still time to put crops in, we have still got another fortnight window.”

Meanwhile, Mount Gambier Combined Agents chairman Brad Holdman said it was one of the driest years he has experienced in his 20 years of farming in the South East region.

“Clients still have to feed their sheep through this period and people are calving or finishing calving now and are starting lambing and they will have to feed their livestock for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“It means that we’re going to start to get cold soon and it will be difficult for feed to grow even if it does rain. It is going to be a long winter.

“We need it to rain and if it does start to rain, at this stage we would still get some feed to grow.

“The ground temperature has not got to the point where it is not going to provide at all so we would be hopeful that … in the next couple of weeks we would certainly get a good reasonable rain and kick the season into gear.”

Mr Holdman said it needs to continue to rain soon for the germination of crops to continue and provide feed through winter and into spring.

“We need it to rain for the plants to start growing and we have had the germination back a while ago that is why everything is green and in a lot of places it is really struggling for that germination to continue to grow, there has just not been enough rain,” he said.

“There has been a little bit of dew and moisture and things like that, a little bit of rain around but we need a big downpour to wet the profile and for it sink in for later on. Everything helps but we need a downpour.

“If it does not rain for the foreseeable future, farmers will still have to continue feeding their stock including cows and sheep and those ewes that are starting to lamb.

“Feed grain and hay have both become very, very tight and we know it is not over a small area the season has not broken to a degree but most of South Australia is struggling and even into western Victoria so hay supplies are really difficult now to source and expensive.

“We would usually expect the majority of feed at this time of year would come from grass on the ground and that is not the case this year.”

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