Praying and betting on beating drought

By | 21 January 2015

Matthew FisherDROUGHT-stricken graziers Rosemary and Warwick Champion are taking the biggest gamble of their lives.
Their parched Longway Station, which sits on almost 8100ha just outside Longreach in central Queensland, is surrounded by neighbours furiously selling cows, their land too dry to sustain the beasts. But the Champions, both in their 70s, are spending an extraordinary $1000 a day to truck hay from South Australia to feed their beloved russet-coloured Santa Gertrudis cattle. Instead of destocking like their neighbours, they have reduced their herd from about 1200 to about 500, keeping a core breeding group.

We’re preserving 50 years of breeding,” Ms Champion tells The Weekend Australian. “So when it does rain, we’ll be ready.

It’s a huge risk to take, and an expensive one.

You don’t have to go anywhere near a racetrack in the bush to gamble,” she says with a laugh. “This will make us or break us.

They’ve had no rain since January last year — and then only 10cm in four shallow falls. The last good rain was in 2012. Since then, they’ve had 20 individual months without rain.

It’s a similar story across so much of inland Queensland, where heartbreaking stories of farmer suicides, family hardship and debt-laden graziers being evicted from their drought-affected properties are all too common.

Figures just released by the ­Bureau of Meteorology reinforce just how dry 2014 was in Queensland and northern NSW. More than half of Queensland inland from the east coast suffered from “seriously deficient” rainfall last year, with total falls among the lowest 10 per cent of years since ­official records began in 1900.

But large areas around the worst locations of Winton, ­Hughenden, Cloncurry, Longreach, Blackall and Charleville in Queensland — and Bourke and Walgett in northern NSW — were the driest they have ever been.

The Bureau of Meteorology’s Karl Braganza said patches of Queensland west of the dividing range had recorded combined rainfall over the past two years 90 per cent down on average. To make matters worse, 2013 was also the hottest year on record, and last year the third hottest.

That’s why this drought seems to have come on so quickly and so severely; it’s not just about less than average rainfall for a few years in a row in some places, but about the (wet season) rains hardly coming at all,” Dr Braganza said. “It also means that even if some places are getting rainfall and storms now, as they have over the past month, it is going to take an awful lot more to really replace that missing soil moisture and really break the drought.”

The Champions know all too well that weary feeling of missing out on rain yet again. Recent falls in western Queensland, mostly east of Barcaldine and Blackall, have come tauntingly close to their property, but missed Longway station and the baked district surrounding Longreach.

Yet, remarkably, the Champions have not let one cow die.

We don’t stand any deaths,” Ms Champion says. “Over three years of drought, we haven’t let any starve.

She adds that the yearly average rainfall in Longreach is about 400mm.

Each morning, the pair rise ­before dawn to spread yellow hay on Longway’s barren airstrip, in a dusty paddock dotted with gidyea, coolibah and dead-finish trees.

Legend has it the dead-finish trees were labelled such by the local Aborigines, for when the drought-­resistant boughs finally drooped and died, that was a giant hint the land was “dead, finished”, and it was time to move on.

On Longway, the dead-finish trees are “looking very unhealthy” but are still alive, a grinning Ms Champion says.

The grazier is perennially cheerful and, when The Weekend Australian visits Longway, she insists her station’s story is one of preparing for rain, rather than ­despairing through a long, tough drought.

It’s certainly busy. Teenage grandsons on holidays are manoeuvring heavy loaders around the steep edges of the station’s two major dams, digging out thick silt from the dry, cracked bottoms of the water stores. Mr Champion, 75, interjects, straight-faced, that there’s one upside to drought. “You’ve only got one opportunity to clean a dam out,” he says.

And 23km of exclusion fencing have been built to keep out feral animals including kangaroos, pigs and wild dogs.

However, despite the good cheer, Ms Champion acknowledges their children are deeply concerned about the drought. “The family is worried because it was the same this time last year,” she says. “We’ve never had dry dams before on this scale. We always prided ourselves that our cattle only had to walk 1.5km or 2km to water. Now, they have to be brought up to the homestead to be fed and ­watered. We’ve had 20 individual months with no rain at all. That’s a very long time.

Longway, which sits about 6km from the Thompson River, the lifeblood of Longreach, has eight dams, of which only two have some usable water.

The property was built on dams. Ms Champion’s great-great-grandparents arrived in Queensland’s central-west in the late 1880s, as the original dam sinkers. Her great-aunt was the first on Longway in 1914.

The country is extraordinarily resilient,” she says. “You have to be mindful if you’re going to buy into this country that it’s drought a lot of the time. You prepare for drought, and sometimes it rains.

Despite the dry, the cattle look healthy. Slightly protruding ribs can be seen on feeding mothers, but Ms Champion tells The Weekend Australian that’s nothing to worry about.

They need to be shiny and have energy, that’s what you look for,” she says. “If you’re a breeding mother, and you’ve been feeding a calf for months, you’ll have a few bones sticking out. The beauty is that while we’re looking after them, they’re still calving. This is sweet country for cattle. There are quite a lot of edible trees. Two-thirds of the property is black soil. It’s undulating, pebbly downs.”

Ms Champion and her husband met at a polocrosse match in Longreach in 1959. Both describe the connection as love at first sight. Their strong bond, faith in themselves, and religious faith keep them going. “This is what we love doing, and we sustain each other,” she says. “We’ve got to have an enormous amount of faith. You’ve got to have faith in yourself and faith in God. And faith that soon it’ll rain.

(Source: Sarah Elks, The Australian, 3 January 2015)