Farm rain gauge gives red dirt reading

Grazier Peter Cookson is sure that offloading his cattle was the right thing for him and his family.
Grazier Peter Cookson is sure that offloading his cattle was the right thing for him and his family.

It's a windy afternoon when Kate Stokes walks out her farmhouse door and heads for the official rain gauge at the back of the house.

It's an absurd routine. She knows there's no water in it. But it's interesting sometimes to see how much red dirt pours out.

"It's good to be optimistic but it just won't rain. We can't sustain anything," the young mum says from her family's Mulga Downs property, seven hours west of Brisbane.

So far this year, the gauge has caught just 36mm. To put that in perspective, the figure was 147mm for the whole of last year when the drought was biting hard enough.

In an average year the sprawling property should get close to 400mm, figures dutifully recorded by the Bureau of Meteorology show.

The last time Mulga Downs got a proper drenching was 2016 and since then life has consisted of a series of tough decisions.

Initially that meant not putting fodder crops in the ground for the stock her family usually runs at Mulga Downs and two other properties in the drought-stricken region.

Then there was the call to sell most of their sheep and giving up the lambs they were carrying because there wasn't enough growth in the paddocks to sustain them.

Finally, there was the decision to sell her father's prized herd of breeding cows, the ones he'd spent most of his life carefully refining for their physical traits and temperament.

"His whole life nearly - 40 years - of managing livestock, picking and saving what he wanted to be his desirable herd. And he's finally had to sell them all."

Kate's dad Peter Cookson is frank about the loss of his herd, but he's sure that offloading them was the right thing for him and his adult kids who run their three properties.

He's watched his grazier mates and neighbours bow under the pressures of trying to keep some of their herds in the belief that when it rains, it'll put them on the front foot and get money in the door quickly.

But for Peter the thought of that pressure was just too much.

"It was really disappointing to lose that but when it came down to the crunch, I decided not to get too hung up on those cows," the third generation farmer and grazier says.

"I'd rather my family not live in a state of anguish. It was a good decision for our personal sanity. It was getting really hard work, and it was knocking us about."

Peter is an optimist by nature. He's endured savage droughts before and knows he can come back from them.

"There will be storms in our country again, and the monsoon times will start up. We want to be optimistic and I am."

But it's a cautious optimism.

"Some of these drys are lasting longer. We do have to be more cautious."

The decision to de-stock, but for a few hundred head of sheep that are now being fed on cotton seed shovelled from the back of a trailer, reflects his respect for the land that has sustained his family for generations.

He's heartened by the federal government's latest assistance measures announced this week, including interest free loans that will allow him to restock when the skies finally open.

But he also says more could have been done sooner to make a real difference for families like his.

He says the loan arrangements announced this week might have saved him from selling his herd of cows if they had been made available earlier.

"Yes they could have moved sooner, and I think everyone's seen that. But I'm glad they are doing it now.

"It would have been better earlier, but you can't change that."

Australian Associated Press