TopX agents Mark Lawler and George McVeigh at the Warwick Sheep Sale on May 15, 2019.
TopX agents Mark Lawler and George McVeigh at the Warwick Sheep Sale on May 15, 2019. Elyse Wurm

'GUT-WRENCHING': Farmers devastated by looming choice

"GUT-WRENCHING. It's making me emotional just talking about it."

Those are the words of Bruce McLeish, as he grapples with the strong prospect he'll have to make a decision no one in his family has had to make in nearly 100 years of farming at Karara.

For the first time in the four generations the McLeish family has worked the property, the producers are staring down the barrel of completely destocking their land.

Bruce and Angela McLeish are not the only ones considering the tough decision, as agents say it's crunch time for a lot of farmers battling to maintain stock during the relentless drought.

For Mr McLeish, the choice comes after he, alongside the Karara community, tirelessly fought for cluster fencing to protect his sheep from being torn to bits by wild dogs.

Now he says the stock will instead probably be 'beaten by the season'.

Just over a month since $1.7million was announced for the cluster fencing on the Southern Downs, it looks like drought will be the ultimate predator that rips the last of his sheep away.

WOOL PRICE WORRY: Bruce McLeish had postponed shearing because of the weather, not because he thinks the wool market is about to pick up. Photo Toni Somes / Warwick Daily News
Bruce McLeish. Toni Somes

Mr McLeish said he's already down to a third of his normal numbers of sheep.

Buying feed, agistment or destocking are the options now on the table.

Mr McLeish said with mutton, lamb and wool prices hitting record highs, destocking was most likely the decision he'll be making in the near future.

"Unless a miracle happens in the next couple of weeks," Mr McLeish said.

"If you go and invest $10,000-$20,000 in feed and you've got no water you're in a corner.

"At the moment it's looking strongly like it'll be the first time (we destock)."

Mr McLeish said his family had never seen a drought like this with native trees including ironbark, wattle and eucalyptus dying as a result of the big dry.

Half the 24 dams on his property are dry, others have varying levels of water that could last between one and three months.

"The worrying thing is we're at a time of the year when we don't get large amounts of rainfall," he said.

Mr McLeish said his house was placed on the Karara property in the 1800s because it was safe water country.

Now he said he was definitely putting his hand up for help through the free water carting available to Southern Downs residents through the Salvation Army.

"We've usually got beautiful creek water at the back of our house, you could nearly drink it, it's been dry for a couple of months," Mr McLeish said.

"Rural people are self sufficient, we know how much water we need in the creeks or the dams to get by.

"It's very safe water country, our country is very undulating and very steep."

But as the water levels on his property get lower, Mr McLeish said his sheep and cattle are left with water that isn't as high a quality.

"We realise when you take on properties and farming there's no rules but this is a historical drought and now nobody has seen it like it," he said.

TopX agents George McVeigh and Mark Lawler at the Warwick Sheep Sale on May 15, 2019.
TopX agents George McVeigh and Mark Lawler at the Warwick Sheep Sale on May 15, 2019. Elyse Wurm

TopX stock agent George McVeigh said producers around the Southern Downs were being forced to make the decision to completely destock.

"It's going to continue to go that way, the way the seasons are. It's the harsh reality of nature," Mr McVeigh said.

He said it was "crunch time" for many farmers.

"You've seen it with cattle numbers, you can't hold on," he said.

Mr McLeish said mutton prices had hit record prices, around the $6/kg mark where previously they have sat around $3.30-$4.70/kg.

The wool market has also skyrocketed, which should be a time when producers get ahead.

Instead they're looking at selling their stock, but Mr McLeish said he would not be giving up his Karara property.

"We're fully committed to that, we'll restock when the season breaks and give our property time to regenerate," he said.

"We'll have the opportunity to put the cluster fences up and get the productivity going."

For more information about free water carting phone the Salvation Army on 46613617.

To find a rural financial counsellor phone 1800686175.