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‘Bought us time’: Welcome rains but ‘green drought’ far from broken

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“We’ve a long way to go to fill up [the soil’s] moisture profile,” he said, speaking over croaking frogs that have somehow returned to a long-dry dam. “The rains have bought us some time.”

Eastern parts of the state could pick up another 50 millimetres – or more if they happen to be under a string of thunderstorms expected to move through on Saturday.

The rain “will be good for the dams, the gardens and parks that have been suffering a lot lately”, Brett Dutschke, senior meteorologist with Weatherzone, said. “There are still very large [rainfall] deficits.”

Places such as Dubbo have had about 84 millimetres of rain this month, or about twice the October average. That compared with 117 millimetres for the entire first nine months of the year, easily the lowest on record and about 70 per cent below the norm, according to Blair Trewin, senior climatologist at the bureau.

Setting up a base

The recent falls, though, have come too late to help winter crops – in those regions that bothered to plant one – and will have only moderate benefit to graziers, Cheryl Kalisch Gordon, a senior grains analyst with Rabobank, said.

“It’s still not drought-breaking and not enough to set up a good pasture [season]”, she said. “It’s more set up a base for a summer crop.”

More falls in the near term will be critical to ensure rain penetrates the soil before warmer weather arrives and evaporation ramps up.

While northern regions may now consider planting cotton, sorghum or corn, any rebound will be a lengthy one.

“This doesn’t go away for 12 months” for grain farmers, Ms Kalisch Gordon said. “And the capacity to rebuild herds – that’s years’ long.”

‘Watching the grass grow’

For Steven Tilse, the region around his Upper Hunter town of Gundy has also benefited from some recent rain – 15 millimetres overnight into Friday – but conditions remain extremely dry.

The Pages River remains completely dry but there’s enough surface moisture to spur the grass.

Green shoots, but not much else, along the Pages River at Gundy in the Upper Hunter Valley.

Green shoots, but not much else, along the Pages River at Gundy in the Upper Hunter Valley.Credit:Nick Moir

“You can see it growing in front of you,” Mr Tilse joked on Friday. “It’s changing – there’s clouds and storms.”

Still, farmers in the area – just three hours’ drive from Sydney – continue to handfeed stock to keep them alive.

Mr Tilse urged Sydneysiders to visit drought-hit regions to spend money in shops and accommodation as farmers rebuild.

“Conditions are dire,” he said. “We want these towns to survive.”

Farmland near Gundy in the Upper Hunter region is one region where rains are bringing early green shoots - but much more is needed to end the drought.

Farmland near Gundy in the Upper Hunter region is one region where rains are bringing early green shoots – but much more is needed to end the drought.Credit:Steven Tilse

Big decision

One sign that farmers are taking cues from the apparent change in fortunes was a sharp reduction in the cattle on offer at the local Scone market this week, Mr Tilse said.

Numbers dropped to 300, or about a third of the tally in previous weeks and a fraction of the 1800 on sale before the drought.

“They’ve decided to hang in – it’s a big decision,” he said.

As the Bureau of Meteorology noted last week, the chances of an El Nino event in the Pacific have increased lately. Along with changes in the Indian Ocean, the odds remain that eastern Australia could face a warmer and drier than average end of the year.

Out on the Liverpool Plains the warm, mostly still days after recent rains have been ideal for pasture recovery.

Moisture, though, has only penetrated about 500 millimetres deep and grassroots go down about three times that depth, Mr Blomfield said.

His farm has reduced its herd from 500 cows to fewer than 100 now.

With the potential for a hot summer ahead, “you can go either way”, including a return to drought conditions, he said.

Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.

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