Learning to take the dry one day at a time
Taking it one day at a time
THE Hamels’ secret to surviving the drought is to take it day by day.
Cathy and John Hamel farm sheep and cattle near Texas, on the border of Queensland and New South Wales.
Mrs Hamel said after the previous drought they looked at ways to make their property more sustainable.
“We dug out all our dams ready for the good season.
“Going back to the floods of 2011, we didn’t get the rainfall but we got the water from upriver.
“But by 2014 we had our cattle back on the road again. It was continuously not producing the rain we needed.
“We didn’t actively go out and make plans to prepare for the next drought, we just looked at ways to make our property more sustainable and build our numbers back up again.”
Mrs Hamel said they learned a lot from the previous dry.
“With the last drought we did destock but we tried to hold onto a lot and keep them going. But we ended up basically giving them away. We just kept the breeders on the road during the day to feed and take them back at night to water,” she said.
“When it came time again and it was looking very dry again and the forecast was looking bleak, my husband decided to unload all our cattle in one season.
“We have 12 heifers left out of a mob of 60-odd cattle. They’re on agistment at the moment.
“And we have a core of about 150 breeding ewes. We’ve kept some wethers back for wool production, but they basically look after themselves.”
The Hamels put in a new dam two years ago in preparation for the good times.
“It’s never been filled,” Mrs Hamel said.
“In the four or five years since we’ve dug the others out during the last drought they’ve never been full again either.”
Mrs Hamel said some recent rain had provided a little reprieve.
“We’ve had bits and pieces. Our biggest fall was 18mm a few weeks ago. We’ve had other falls of 6-8mm, just enough to keep the green going for the sheep,” she said.
“We’ve actually been able to stop feeding in the last two or three weeks because they’ve had the spring flush, but before that we were feeding different mobs every day.
“In perspective, I think there are a lot of people worse off than we are.
“Because we live on the river we were able to make lucerne for years beforehand, and we stopped selling it because we needed it for ourselves.
“So we didn’t have to buy hay but we had to buy corn and pellets. But we have been able to stop in the last few weeks.”
The Hamels aren’t looking to restock just yet.
“We will probably try and maintain the levels we’ve got,” Mrs Hamel said.
“But if it gets worse again, there’s not much more we can offload except digging into our breeding stock.
“We just go day by day, you can’t look too far ahead.
“You can’t plan things because you have to see if it rains first.”
Mrs Hamel said this was the worst drought she’d experienced.
“It’s been the worst because of the lack of water. We have had rain all the way through, but not the rain to fill the water storages,” she said.
“Back in 2015 we had a decent year but not the water – it was just enough to keep the grass green.
“But this year the ground has just turned to dust.
“I can remember back in 1994, my father-in-law owned the place then. We were going out and feeding cottonseed. There was no grass but the dams had water.”
Mrs Hamel has kept her job at the Texas Hospital to help support them through the dry.
“I’ve had that job for 30 years. I was working there when I met my husband but I’ve never given the job up,” she said.
“I’ve dropped down to part time but I kept it and I’m so glad I did because it’s our only source of income in the hard times.
“I would be budgeting down to the last dollar.
“I was working three days a week but I felt that I couldn’t help out or contribute here (on the farm), so I dropped down a day so I could help out here more.
“Now that we’ve laid off the feeding a little bit we’re not as busy, so I’ll go back to working three days again. And if it gets bad again, I’ll reassess.
“We did have a wool clip, we shore some sheep before we sold them. So that has kept us going.”
Having a holiday is something most farmers don’t get to think about during the drought.
Mrs Hamel said she and her husband were lucky to have four days off this year.
“We had a long weekend in August. Our daughter and son-in-law came and stayed so we could go away for the weekend. It was my birthday,” she said.
“But we haven’t had a holiday in years, probably since the kids were at school.
“Our kids are asking what we’re doing for Christmas and we say ‘probably nothing’ because we can’t leave.
“If they want to see us, they have to come out here.”
SMALL REPRIEVE: The Hamels’ new dam is half full, the fullest it's been since it was built two years ago.
John and Cathy Hamel.