Pipeclay dairy farmers say local families and businesses are suffering

Dairy farmers Craig and Lisa have already started selling some of their herd.
Dairy farmers Craig and Lisa have already started selling some of their herd.

A couple who bought their dream farm three years ago are facing ruin as the big dry continues.

Lisa France and Craig Ford spent their lives working on other people's farms until they were finally able to afford their own property. They moved to Pipeclay near Wauchope, and started their dairy farm.

Things got tough a couple of years ago as the price of supermarket milk fell, and since November last year, the farm has had no rain worth speaking about.

Lisa France and Craig Ford stand on the dry river bed of the Hastings River at Pipeclay which is just a stream in places.

Lisa France and Craig Ford stand on the dry river bed of the Hastings River at Pipeclay which is just a stream in places.

"We didn't get summer crops. We should have made 1,000 bales of silage but we ended up with just 200 bales and we had to feed it out early, because it stopped raining. That used up all our meagre winter feed by March," said Lisa.

Feeding their 400 dairy cattle has become cripplingly expensive. For the past 18 months, the prices have rocketed, with dairy grain costing $700 a tonne compared to $400 a tonne before the drought really took hold.

The couple were forced to get hay from Western Australia, because their usual supplier in South Australia ran out. Hay is also an eye-watering $700 a tonne, when they used to be able to get it for less than $300 a tonne.

Lisa says the farm at Pipeclay was their dream.

"We always had to lease before that. We bought our own farm and it has just fallen over in a heap. I spent the weekend crying.

"If it doesn't rain, we will have to sell our cattle. There are so many farmers out there in the same predicament. The cattle will have to go straight to the abattoir."

The cattle are skinny because of the drought.

The cattle are skinny because of the drought.

Lisa has had to find work in a bakery in Port Macquarie.

"It's only casual but I desperately need the work. I was doing 12 to 15 hours a day on the farm, and now Craig has to do my jobs. It has put so much pressure on us.

"We got cut off from irrigation last Friday because of low water levels in the Hastings River, and that crushed us. It was absolutely devastating. We cannot afford to buy feed. Now, we cannot grow it. We don't want to give up but we can't not feed the cattle. It will affect other farmers along this river.

"I'm not sure how we can go ahead. We don't want to borrow. We work off about 500 acres. We spent $15,000 on seed to grow feed and we should have knee-high grass, but it didn't grow because of the drought. That was money we could ill afford to waste," she said.

The couple spent $15,000 on seed to grow feed. This field should have knee-high grass but it didn't grow because of the drought.

The couple spent $15,000 on seed to grow feed. This field should have knee-high grass but it didn't grow because of the drought.

Lisa says have friends all over the country in the same position and some of them have given up farming.

"They can't sell their cattle because the animals look so skinny. Animals are getting stuck in dams. The situation is dire and it is going to affect the wider community around Wauchope. There is a knock-on effect.

"It scares me about where this is going to end. We could all be importing feed, and jobs in agriculture are going to be scarce," she added.

Her fiance, Craig Ford, is in touch with other farmers, so they can support each other. He says losing their water has pushed them to the tenth degree.

"While we had water, we had hope. Now, that's gone. We've lost our livelihood because of the restrictions, whereas people in town can still survive. It's rain. We all need rain," he said.

They are scaling back and selling cattle and he says it's the whole area - the beef farmers and the dairy farmers.

"Real Dairy Australia have been good and they are doing everything they can do. We've been speaking to them for 12 months. The lack of flow in the river is an ongoing concern for us all.

"We can't shut off farming. Everything is planned ahead. Nobody's buying cattle, so the only option is the abattoirs, and then they're gone forever," he said.

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