Drought bites but hope prevails | comment

THE term "drought" seems to be word too many of us have become scared to use.

But thanks to the official records we can access from the Bureau of Meteorology and other agencies, we can see for ourselves if and when a dry run has officially become a drought - even if the weasel words used by government types try to make us believe otherwise.

Just as the intricacies agriculture are very difficult to grasp for an outsider, so are the plethora of ways drought can impact different farming businesses.

Neighbours with seemingly similar production systems can face dramatically different challenges when a big dry hits, especially if their financial situations differ.

And in a highly diversified agricultural region like ours, various production systems will be impacted differently.

What's plain is that a record rainfall deficiency, a second consecutive dry year and another failed spring is now being felt, albeit in different ways, everywhere from Port MacDonnell to the northern reaches of the Tatiara and beyond.

One can't help but compare the current conditions to those of 2006. I have vivid memories of my travels throughout the SE following the frantic schedule of spring livestock sales which were under significant pressure due to the unprecedented dry.

A number of special Naracoorte cattle sales were organised as graziers from across the SE offloaded calves en masse.

Despite the difficulty of the situation, as annual drafts of calves were offloaded several months early and at a fraction of their usual sale weights, stock agents never lost their renowned sense of humour.

Auctioneers, desperate to find something nice to say about sorry looking pen of calves below them would explain the cattle had either been surviving on "gumnuts and memories" or had been "licking the sunshine off the rocks".

Each drought is different and we cannot underestimate the toll that the current run of consecutive dry years is having on farmers throughout the region. Yes, livestock prices are profitable and financial settings are quite favourable, but that alone doesn't mean farmers are better placed to rise-out a failed season.

Many SE livestock operations replenish their numbers by buying-in young breeding females annually and in this sense, strong prices for cows, heifers or ewes are very much a double-edged sword.

Recent ram sale results, which are so often a barometer of industry confidence, showed that optimism remains high among sheep producers.

This might also anecdotally support the feedback from mixed farmers that sheep continue to be a very profitable part to their businesses, especially in dry years.

In many ways farmers are better prepared now than ever to succeed in dry conditions, thanks largely to modern cropping and pasture management techniques which are maximising the use of soil moisture.

But all the innovation in the world still can't do much to protect farmers from a dry winter which is bookended by a limp autumn break and a failed spring which brings with it cruel summer-like heat and a frost or two to boot.

In the work I recently completed for the MacKillop Farm Management Group, I heard "diversity" and "climate risk" mentioned regularly as I went on-farm to talk to a number of young MFMG members.

It reiterated to me that our region's emerging generation of producers are building greater flexibility and seasonal risk management into their businesses.

This is wonderfully reassuring, as is the way they are steadfastly optimistic about overcoming the market and climate challenges that will arise in the years to come.

In the more immediate outlook, we are braced for a long, hot summer. To paraphrase an old saying, every day the big dry drags on brings us closer to some decent rain and the drought being broken.

With this in mind, we must be hopeful that 2016 will be a more forgiving year that these two years which have preceded it.