Australia Weather News

Lake Nash Station, like other Barkly properties, has had to sell off a lot of cattle due to dry times. - ABC

While drought-stricken eastern states continue to battle tough conditions, the 'big dry' is creeping into the Top End, with cattle stations in the Northern Territory's Barkly Tablelands seeing one of their driest periods in decades.

After a disappointing wet season, the 'engine room' of the Territory's cattle industry, a sector worth hundreds of millions of dollars, is running low on grass, and cattle are being trucked off.

Greg Browning, climatologist at the Bureau of Meteorology, said that although the dry is not quite record breaking for the naturally flat, rolling plains of grassland, it is getting close.

"This dry that we're seeing now is basically an extension of an early end to the wet season — that's really indicated in the vegetation maps that we look at," Mr Browning said.

"Unfortunately it's a pretty dire picture all round based on what's happened in the last few months.

"Historically, it's definitely significant, as well as the rainfall situation we've had warmer than average conditions, so whatever little soil moisture is around, that gets evaporated more rapidly with those warmer day time temperatures."

Managing worst dry in 40 years

Alexandria Station, owned by the North Australia Pastoral Company, spans more than a million hectares, including its outstations, and holds the title of the NT's largest cattle station.

Manager Tim Milne said looking at the record books, Alexandria is experiencing its driest period in 40 years.

"Going back [looking at] historic data, 1978 was a dry year, this year probably is down close to it, but not quite as bad," Mr Milne said.

"We've had 43 millimetres for the year, in some of our higher rainfall areas for the wet season we had 115mm for the total wet season.

"In some areas we were maybe right down maybe 20–25mm."

Despite the tough conditions, Mr Milne said at this stage it is not looking like the property will be set back too much.

"It is a dry year, [but] all in all we'll probably get through the year relatively unscathed I think," he said.

"We'll still join our heifers at the end of the year, to what we had planned pre-wet season, before we knew what was coming up."

Properties sell off stock

Further south at Georgina Pastoral Company's Lake Nash Station, on the Queensland and NT border, the situation is similar.

"We didn't really receive much of a wet season at all, the little bit that we did get did us more harm than good," station manager Erin Gibson said.

"On the western side it's a bit [of a] better picture than that, but it's still not what we'd call a complete season I suppose.

"We've been pretty busy trying to keep in front of it and move cattle and juggle things around — we've definitely had to lighten up this year that's for sure.

"We're probably not quite settled on what we can maintain, but there's been significant de-stocking going on there."

Mr Gibson said he was thankful that the dry spell follows on from four or five years of good seasons.

"I think 2012 and 2013 weren't great for us, they were pretty savage, [we had to] destock then," he said.

"[But] since then we've had a pretty good run, you can't be too upset about what you've received in that time."

"You've just got to do what you got to do and chase sales where you can — you do the best with what you're given."

Cattle numbers revised

The effects of the de-stocking, in the Barkly and beyond, is showing in the nation's cattle figures.

Statistics released last month by Meat and Livestock Australia showed a revised cattle slaughter forecast for 2018 of 7.8 million head — 9 per cent higher than the 2017 total.

MLA also said that Australia has exported 487,000 head of cattle in the first six months of this year — 23 per cent more than the same period last year.

Of that amount, nearly 200,000 were shipped out of the Darwin port.

ABC