Drought-stricken WA farmers have started culling livestock for the second consecutive year as feed supplies disappear and desperate pleas for agistment cannot be met.
Industry leaders admit the plight of the farmers is worse than last season, one of the poorest on record.
Continuing dry conditions mean there has been very little crop or pasture growth, farmers’ limited feed stores have all but disappeared and now WA grain handler Co-operative Bulk Handling is warning that its lupin and feed barley stocks have almost been exhausted.
“The on-farm feed supplies have dried up, feed that can be brought in is drying up rapidly and we have absolutely nothing growing at all, it’s actually more disastrous than last year,” Department of Agriculture and Food dry season incident manager Don Telfer warned.
He said widespread destocking had reduced flock levels in some areas to 20 per cent. Livestock had flooded markets in recent weeks pushing returns to as low as a dollar a sheep, which was not viable.
He said there was increasing talk in the northern agricultural region of shooting livestock, particularly this year’s lambs. Thousands of lambs were destroyed last season.
WA Farmers Federation president Trevor De Landgrafft said there had already been isolated cases of lambs being shot and he said more and more farmers would be forced to do the same in coming weeks.
Geoff Whyte, who farms near Coorow 270km north of Perth, admitted shooting sheep was an option he was likely to face if there was no decent rain.
Mr Whyte rushed to buy feed when CBH warned of its shortage this week and he was desperately trying to agist 150 young sheep because he was unsure how long his struggling farm could sustain them along with another 500 ewes and 500 lambs.
“You go out each day, you feed the sheep and they actually chase the ute they’re that hungry,” he said.
“You see the little bit of remaining vegetable matter in the paddock get less each day, then you get a day where the wind is fierce and the paddocks blow and you look at it and think, ‘God, this is my farm blowing away in front of my eyes’.
“The thought of going out and getting a gun and shooting 500 sheep tears your heart out but at the end of the day you can’t be cruel. If the animals don’t have anything to eat then I’ll have no choice but to take that really awful step.”
Margaret Sullivan tells a similar story from her family’s mixed grain and livestock farm near Varley, on the south-eastern outskirts of the agricultural region, 500km from Perth.
Mrs Sullivan said that for the first time in 40 years of farming there was the need to agist 700 sheep and cart water, a job her husband had been carrying out since Christmas.
“He carts water one day from one end of the place to the other and then the next day he carts feed from one end of the farm to the other and the next day he carts water and the next day he carts feed and so on and so on,” she said.
Mr Telfer said the response to calls for agistment had been poor, with options limited to Esperance and hobby farms and wineries in the South-West, where registers had been established.
Margaret River winery owner Noni Ilic said that sheep had been agisted at her property on and off since last July. She was confident most winery owners would assist but warned the area had limited capacity.
Agriculture Minister Kim Chance said he was waiting on a report from the State’s Dry Season Advisory Committee, which visited worst-affected areas in northern and eastern shires on Tuesday and yesterday.
RSPCA president Lynne Bradshaw said the organisation was working with industry and the department to ensure appropriate animal welfare standards were maintained.