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It's forgotten how to rain

This is the first in a series of short stories I'm writing on the #drought2018.

If you want to help New England New South Wales farmers visit on Facebook.

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I had a lot of firsts happen to me on the weekend.

The first time I’ve come face to face with a bull in a stare off.

It won on account of its size.

The first time I’ve driven a four-wheel drive vehicle in four-wheel drive mode.

I’m still a scaredy cat when it comes to off road terrain.

And first time I’ve been in a vehicle being loaded up with a forklift.

It was also the first time I could actually help a friend who has always been the first to step up to help me.

You see, if you haven’t heard, times are tough on the land in New South Wales at the moment and yes, I’m being polite in the wording of that.

My dear old dad, who after 70 odd years off the land never got the nutrient rich soils of Piallamore out of his veins, said it had forgotten how to rain two years ago. I image if he was still with us he would be shaking his head in wonderment at the total absence of moisture falling from the sky.

His five words, its forgotten how to rain, played on loop in my head as I took the short drive to help my farming friend.

The winter landscape around Tamworth is bleaker than normal in its various shades of brown and stepping out of my car at my destination a cold winter blast of wind is not slowed down by leafy deciduous trees.

Like everything else, these trees have given up what they can in a hope of lasting a bit longer.

My friend looks cheerful enough but tired. He has been working non-stop as his family is going through a tough time on top of everything else. The elderly family patriarch’s health has taken a turn for the worse and the family is split between a Sydney hospital room and the land. He is keeping the home fire burning on three properties and, like 98 per cent of New South Wales, hoping for a break in the weather to provide some relief on the home front.

First call of business is to meet the new members of the hand-rearing flock. There are about seven lambs and each has a story. A couple are from triplet births and their mothers were struggling to feed them. One was found in the paddock, left for dead, after a fox bit it on its head. Another was rescued from a crack in the dry ground that it couldn’t climb out of and it was only spotted because its ears were just above ground level.

They are doing okay and like all babies they think its feed time as soon as they see their mum. Even though mum is a man that stands over six-foot-tall and wears steel toed boots.

After the cute welcome my friend warns me he has to put down an ewe that is down and suffering in the paddock and gives me the option to stay at the paddock gate while he does it. I accept that offer and we head off to farm one in his Toyota.

It’s not a long journey by road to the adjoining properties. Some of its even tar road but it’s long enough to discuss how things are going for him and his family.

The strongest word he used to explain the situation was “difficult”.

The seeds are planted for the winter crop on his land and a good day of rain would be enough to get it to shoot. The cost of hay had jumped from $170 a round bale in January to well past the $240 mark now. They have sold off a large number of stock and are waiting for the lambs to mature to market them too but, despite their best efforts, the meat quality won’t be as good as it has been in previous years. Even with reduced stock numbers hand feeding is costing around $5,000 a week.

It’s just difficult feeding the sheep off the back of the ute with only one person. It’s drive into the paddock, stop, get up on the back tray, throw out some feed, get down, climb back into the cab, drive a little further and repeat. And that is the reason for my visit. To help with the hand feeding.

But first we pass the hay shed on the top farm and head to the paddock with the dying ewe. I’ve been over this land before however it looks strange and unfamiliar in the absence of the any paddock grass.

As promised, I’m left at the gate while he heads off to do the humane thing for the poor animal. It gives me a chance to locate myself and absorb the dramatic change in the landscape.

Although I’ve driven and walked this place before I never thought there were so many rocks around. The tree I photographed three years ago on the fence line is certainly looking the worse for ware and the remains of animals, victims of predators and dry times, are dotted around.

A cold wind blows and carries the sound of the nearby flock’s bleating as they head off in pursuit of the ute which brings them food. They are disappointed this afternoon as they had their share earlier in the day but you have to admire the effort they put into the chase.

I spy a small patch of green and a fine spray of water just away from the gate. One of the water pipes feeding the paddock trough has split, possibly after freezing in the below minus overnight temperature. My friend will be adding that to his to do list too. Like he needs something else.

Thankfully, I don’t hear the sound of the gun as it dispatches the dying ewe but the ute pursuing flock stop their chase and seem to lose interest in its return.

I wait for its return to go feed the small herd of cattle and to load up with hay.

COMING SOON: Discovering the true meaning of the phase “you’re a cow” and following the experts – the kelpies.

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