PHONE lines have been running hot in the west as graziers elsewhere still in the full grip of drought seek agistment.
Some areas in the western rangelands have had some useful rain since Easter, including follow-up falls.
With a rejuvenation of much of the central and northern Darling regions people are paying up to as much as $1.10/sheep per week for agistment.
Landmark Russell proprietors David and Gail Russell, who also run Budda Station on the Darling River, 79 kilometres north of Wilcannia and 170km from Cobar, have been inundated with enquiries for agistment.
"People desperate for relief are ringing from the inside country," Mr Russell said.
"We are getting calls from Inverell, Armidale, Dubbo and even Wellington as country out here has responded very quickly.
"People are paying up to $1/head per week (for sheep) where normally it's 50 to 60 cents and the rule of thumb is $10 for a cow.
"The black country is slower to respond, but the red country has responded extremely well and the mild weather with 26 to 28 degree days and no frosts out of the river as yet has induced pasture growth.
"Clients right up to Bourke, Fords Bridge and Hungerford are reporting their country has also had a tremendous response. Spinach is growing up to 10 centimetres high." (Spinach is Tetragonia, a native that grows in all states and commonly called New Zealand spinach).
Sheep in decline
Once one of the biggest breeding areas of Merino sheep in the Western Division had numbers dwindle significantly during this drastically severe and prolonged drought.
Mr Russell suggests in the Central Darling and Cobar shires to the Darling River, livestock numbers could have dropped to between seven and 10 per cent from before the dry.
"The Cobar region was home for upwards of 800,000 sheep and other areas would have been higher, but seven or eight per cent would be all that is left," he said.
"While there are a lot of Dorpers in this country now, there is a turn back towards Merinos as fencing has improved with the goat industry increasing and as the country regains growth from the rain."
Mr Russell said the resurgence of restocking had his company sourcing 15,000 ewes from Western Australia and Queensland.
"Merino ewes mostly scanned-in-lamb for prime lamb production and a quick cash flow income in the months ahead are the main purchases," he said.
"The break has graziers advancing slightly, but if it doesn't rain again too soon at least they can cash out of those ewes and lambs."
He said since the rain, this was the second week in three years he hadn't fed stock.
According to Gemma Turnbull, Western Local Land Services (LLS) team leader - Agriculture, stock numbers in the Western LLS region were down significantly.
"Some producers have destocked completely while others have committed to feed only their core breeders," she said.
"Despite decent falls of rain in some parts, the prevalence of winter annuals will only provide a short reprieve if more rain is not received in the spring."
Western LLS stock return figures, which cover some 40pc of the state, had cattle numbers at a high of 209,824 in 2012 and 118,100 in 2017, while sheep numbers in 2012 were at 2.27 million and rose to 2.43m in 2017 following big numbers in 2007 at 2.54m head.
Bourke's Landmark Walsh Hughes principal Greg Seiler, said there would be nowhere near the 1.2m sheep of the 1990s in the Bourke region.
"As a whole I'd say there would be half that number today," he said.
However, he didn't think the region had lost that much production.
"A lot of the bigger operations have gone to goats, particularly in that western country where much has been fenced for goats, plus a lot of people have gone into cattle," Mr Seiler said.
"From our figures our DSE (dry sheep equivalent) numbers we sell each year probably haven't changed in 20 years.
However, the livestock mix has changed. It used to be 80pc sheep to 20pc cattle, but in the past four to five years that has become 50-50.
"There's been an increase in the number of cattle run by absentee property owners, as well as sheep."
Mr Seiler said about 50pc of Bourke Shire rate notices now goes to postcodes outside Bourke's 2840.
"Merino bloodlines have also changed," he said, "micron is still around the 21 mark, but the South Australian influence has given away to Macquarie studs in the past decade.
"SA blood is still very strong around the West Darling country, west of Wanaaring, but once you came back to Louth, Bourke, Cunnamulla, Enngonia and Brewarrina, most flocks are Macquarie Valley blood. I'd say 99pc."
Geoff McDougall, Landmark's livestock specialist at Hay, said sheep numbers, especially to the north of Ivanhoe would be back by 50pc, easily.
"Graziers to the north have consolidated with the numbers they've got and rejoining now for September/October lambing," he said.
"On the southern side graziers have been buying Merino scanned-in-lamb ewes and Dorper ewes.
"In the northern and western side of Ivanhoe, towards Balranald, Dorpers would run at about 90pc, while it is different once you cross the railway line to the south which is virtually the start of the Hay Plains and Merino country."
Andrew Mosely, Etiwanda, Cobar, suggests that before the Easter rain sheep numbers would have been down to 20pc or 30pc on pre-drought numbers.
"We know people who have destocked totally and others who have dropped down to a third of their normal ewe numbers," he said.
"The destocking has been pretty significant. In our case we would be down around 50pc of what we would normally carry.
"However, there is a big expanse east of us that hasn't had a break yet."