Outback landholders pushed in a corner by water prices

Water prices mean there's no greener pastures to be found in Southern NSW


Beef
Nick Pritchard with some of the original 600 young breading cows he brought south.

Nick Pritchard with some of the original 600 young breading cows he brought south.

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The Pritchards quest to get their cattle herd through the drought stumped by water prices.

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Nick and Susan Pritchard of Moorabie Station, 240 kilometers north of Broken Hill, have done everything they can to keep their cattle herd going during an unprecedented drought.

They've reduced numbers, agisted and even moved more than 900 km to what they thought would be 'greener pastures' at Deniliquin. But they say the price of water has left them with few options and a heart-breaking decision.

Nick Pritchard said they purchased Moorabie Station, a 73,500 hectare grazing property, at the end of 2010 and had a run of good years.

"We were running 800 to 1000 breeding cows, mostly Herefords and Angus with Angus cross Simmental bulls so we were producing a really nice line of black calves", Mr Pritchard said.

"We were also trading sheep, so we had anything from 3000 to 5000 on the place at any one time."

But, he said January 2017 was the last rainfall that ran anything into the dams, with only around 40 millimetres of rain falling in the last 14 months.

"During 2017 we started reducing our stock numbers and we went into 2018 with half our breeding cows and no sheep at all," he said.

The Pritchard's made the conscious decision to try to keep some core breeding stock going.

"To buy back in was always going to be difficult due to the extent of the drought, cattle will be expensive and hard to get and it had taken us eight years to get our herd into a really good position," Mr Pritchard said.

But they couldn't continue at Moorabie, completely de-stocking the property in early 2018 and planning a temporary move south with the remaining herd. They put most stock on the road at Jerilderie, while anything weanable went to a feedlot in Finley.

The next challenge came when the stock routes were closed unexpectedly in August.

"We had a bit of a mad scramble to work out what we were going to do. Part of our long term plan was always to have a block down south because it gives us better access to markets and some flexibility around finishing weaners off, so in a last ditch effort to try and keep stock going we bought an irrigation farm at Deniliquin," he said.

The block had 950 acres of irrigation layout. The Pritchard's planned to grow forage sorghum late last season for cattle feed, believing there would be some water allocation, but none came. The season opened at zero per cent allocation for the Murray Valley, spiking the cost of water in the temporary water market.

"The pricing just kept going north and it was pretty obvious that no allocation was coming so we had to start selling stock to pay feed bills because it was cheaper to buy in hay than grow crops," he said.

The Pritchards estimate they have spent well in excess of a million dollars feeding their stock and are now down to their last 50 cows and calves and 150 weaners.

Mr Pritchard said when they bought at Deniliquin they had little concept of the rules that govern the Murray Darling Basin Agreement.

"It seems crazy, there's water flowing out to sea in South Australia and we can't get any, there's allocations in Victoria and South Australia but none in NSW, it doesn't make a sense to me", he said.

"We just went in the wrong direction when buying country here, we should have gone to South Australia."

NSW Farmer's Association president James Jackson said farmers throughout the Murray Valley were in a similar position.

"Anyone using water to irrigate grass is really finding it difficult to make it back up at the moment with the cost of temporary water, there's no two ways about it," Mr Jackson said.

The Pritchard's now plan to put most of the property down to oats with some areas under-sown with rye grass and if they get a break, Lucerne to form a pasture base for next year.

Mr Pritchard says although his heart's in his country up north the circumstances have meant they've had to make a difficult call.

"Susan and I made a decision recently to sell Moorabie, because there's just too many unknowns now," he said.

As always, when it will rain, the biggest unknown of them all.

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