Ensay farmer Peter Fraser destocked about 25 cows last year, but is already increasing numbers, thanks to December and January rain.

Fortunes change in East Gippsland as skies open up

WIDESPREAD December rainfall has provided most East Gippsland farmers some much-needed relief, following what had been one of the region’s driest years on record.

Farmers resorted to destocking sheep and cattle, weaning early, sending stock on agistment, and spending large amounts of money on supplementary feed, in order to get through the dry conditions, with some saying they only made it through “by the skin of my teeth”.

Bairnsdale received just over five inches of rain for the month of December, and Johnsonville farmer Peter Kramme said the four and a half inches that hit his property has already made a significant difference to his sheep and cattle, who were struggling beforehand.

“The sheep are looking really good, the ewes will be joined in four week’s time, so we’re feeding them pallets at the moment, just because the better they can be fed, the better their pregnancy rate will be,” Mr Kramme said.

“One advantage to the drought is that we’ve had no worm problems, it’s been so dry that the worms haven’t been able to incubate.”

He said he destocked a dozen older ewes when things were tough, and sold lambs earlier than normal, but had no plans to sell more stock than necessary.

“Because we’ve been breeding cattle for almost 80 years, a lot of money has gone into buying good bulls, to breed a good herd, so you can’t just sell and replace them, and it’s the same with the sheep,” he said.

“Farmers will feed their sheep and cattle to the last dollar before they sell during a drought.”

He said he’s hoping for a good autumn break, because “then you know you’re going to get a good season”.

Ensay farmer Peter Fraser was away on holidays during the first three weeks of January, and came home to a rain gauge that had caught almost 90 millimetres of rain in that time.

Mr Fraser destocked about 25 cows last year, but is already increasing numbers, having bought 36 steers from a neighbour in January.

“I can 100 per cent see an improvement, I’ve got my calves out on the road, there’s so much grass out there, it’s been magnificent,” Mr Fraser said.

“I’m going to sell about 50 calves at the Mountain Calf Sales in March, and will run the rest through to sell in spring.”

He managed to get by “week by week” without buying any hay last year, and is grateful the season is now being more generous.

“I got through by the skin of my teeth without buying any hay last year, but the cattle never suffered, and they’ve all picked up condition now, they’ve lost their winter coats, and they’re all looking good,” he said.

Swifts Creek farmer Bill Armit said things have definitely changed since late November.

“We seem to be getting a fair bit of rain, we had storms last Friday, and more forecast,” Mr Armit said.

“The stock are looking good now, we’ve still got some heifers on agistment, but they’ll be coming back soon.

“As long as we get some rain in March and April, we should be fine.”

Sharp Fullgrabe livestock agent Graeme Fullgrabe said while the majority of East Gippsland has had a change in fortune, not all areas have been so lucky.

“It’s been pretty patchy, Swifts Creek had 40mm of rain in about 10 seconds, whereas Benambra got nothing, and Omeo got about four drops,” Mr Fullgrabe said.

“In Bairnsdale it’s nice and green, but Omeo is looking disastrous; it seems you just had to be in the right place at the right time.”

He said buying support from South Gippsland meant recent store cattle markets have remained strong.

“We’re lucky we’ve got green grass closeby, it’s green in South Gippsland, and they’ve been buying a lot of stock, as well as a few locals who have been buying females and store cattle,” he said.

He said they expect this year’s Mountain Calf Sales won’t be as strong as last year, but will still be very good.

“We’re expecting prices to be $100-$200 cheaper than last year, but there’ll still be some good sales,” he said.

Omeo farmer Ron Johnston said it’s looking dire on his property, which received 14 inches of rain in 2017, more than half the year before.

“Ensay and Swifts Creek got a few storms over Christmas, but it never came north, which is really frustrating,” Mr Johnston said.

“We’ve been supplementary feeding the cattle, to keep them going, but that’s not getting any cheaper.”

Normally selling at the Mountain Calf Sales in March, he said he almost sold his calves early.

“Last week, I was looking pretty seriously at selling the whole lot of the calves early, but then I figured, I’ve got them this far, I may as well get them the whole way,” he said.

“I’ve kept the condition on them, and we’ll get them through, the sales are only seven weeks away.

“You’ve just got to take each day as it comes, there’s nothing much else you can do about it.”

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