Drought kicked Cameron Rowntree in the gut this week. Spurred by the costs of feeding his cattle, the fourth-generation Walgett farmer thinned his herd by selling stock.
Normally, he would pocket between $1.30 and $1.50 a kilogram for the animals. On Tuesday, he received his lowest-ever price: 30 cents a kilo, about $117 for an entire cow.
''That leaves a pretty sour taste in your mouth,'' he says. ''I almost laughed. It was that bad.'' Two years ago, good rainfall helped secure Walgett's reputation as one of the state's most productive farm areas, but now Rowntree, who has been selling cows every few months, intends to empty his 10,000 hectare property of cattle for the first time. ''We've gone from the penthouse to the outhouse,'' he says.
He is not alone. A typical drought-stricken farm on NSW's north-west slopes and plains is set to lose $120,000 in the 2013-14 financial year, figures from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics Sciences show. Two Queensland regions are expected to bear losses of about $200,000 each.
And those are averages; plenty will fare much worse. Whether discussing crops or livestock, Australian farming is a permanent tale of boom and bust.
Farmers in WA and SA will soon farewell their most profitable season in 30 years, while the east coast drought has picked off cattlemen in northern NSW and across Queensland, the ABARES survey finds.
Among crops, wheat is the best indicator of drought, Nigel Gibson of the Bureau of Statistics says. In one jagged line, a chart of the annual harvest illustrates 150 years of wealth and woe. Five droughts since the late 1980s have tested farmers.
At the depths of the 2007 drought, the annual harvest totalled 10.8 million tonnes. Five years later, after some of the wettest years on record, the harvest nearly tripled to 29.9 million tonnes. Now it is back on the decline. Yet these spikes and troughs understate the pain, chief economist at the Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre Ross Kingwellsays. Crop farmers can, and do, insulate themselves by limiting how much they plant, although a farmer who plants nothing earns nothing. But this drought has hit hardest in northern NSW and Queensland, where cattle farmers such as Rowntree are bearing the brunt.
In 2013, the national slaughter rate - 8.4 million adult cattle sent to abattoirs - was the highest since 1978, Meat & Livestock Australia figures show - 10 per cent of that is being conservatively attributed to drought.
But the cattle industry also recorded its best export year, says Tim McRae, an analyst at the MLA. Exports account for two-thirds of Australia's beef. Without that cushion, ''it would have been devastating'' and farmers would have felt a price crash not seen since the late 1970s, a period still remembered as the ''beef depression''.
McRae sums up the dilemma of cattle farmers simply: ''If they sold cattle, they sold them at a loss. If they tried to keep cattle alive, they incurred extra costs of having to feed them. It just means you go further into debt.''
Angus Gidley-Baird, policy director at NSW Farmers, knows of one Walgett farmer who stored $500,000 dollars worth of fodder for such an occasion. It saw him through one year, but Walgett's drought has outlasted that. Feed is not just a minor incidental in the balance sheet either, says Rowntree, who has just paid $30,000 in freight for 500 bales of hay trucked from 500 kilometres away.
''I'm normally a pretty positive person,'' he says. ''I believe that if you're smart and work hard, you can enjoy the fruits of life.''
He has seen drought before, he says, but not like this. ''I don't sleep. No one [else] works for two years and makes no money. We're still producing food; we're just losing money doing it.''