DEMAND for agistment in Queensland’s northwest where beneficial rain fell last month has hit fever-pitch, with one northern livestock agent logging 130 inquiries from drought-beleaguered cattle producers further south, as the region starts to respond.
At this point, however, the feedback from northern agency contacts suggests that demand for agistment vastly outweighs likely supply.
Beyond the flooded areas on the gulf river systems around Julia Creek, Cloncurry and Richmond, and extending into the lower gulf, a large expanse of adjacent country received very beneficial rain last month, without the flooding or fencing damage. One agent described it as a region from Hughenden down to Longreach, and west of Middleton out to Boulia.
After years of drought, images like the one above are emerging of paddocks in the region where rain fell with a body of green feed, after 75-300mm of rain during February.
Compounding the competitive challenge in agistment opportunity in the region is the fact that inflows of cattle are coming from two directions: the very dry Barkly Tableland region across the border in the NT, as well as central and southern parts of Queensland and well into NSW.
Large pastoral companies have starting shifting cattle from stations in the Barkly and VRD districts and central/southern Queensland into the northwest and gulf region where rain has fallen.
Northwest Queensland stock agent Tom Brodie, from Brodie Agencies at Winton, said he had received 130 inquiries for agistment in his region recently, and had established an agistment register to try to cater for demand.
“Having said that, (as of Saturday) I’m only aware of three places in this area that are taking agistment,” he said. Two of those were family friends or relatives, and another deal was for 3000 cattle from further south.”
There appeared to be several reasons why agistment offers from local landholders with new feed were so scarce, Mr Brodie said.
“Firstly, most property owners would like another inch or two of rain, to be sure of a season,” he said.
“Secondly, the cattle market further south (at centres like Roma and Dalby) fell substantially a couple of weeks ago as numbers from drought areas grew, and that got people here thinking maybe they would be better to buy cheap cattle to restock, rather than offer agistment. Some of the people offering those cattle from drought areas are offering terms, meaning they don’t have to be paid for for six months,” he said
Another factor was that a lot of producers in the northwest were still struggling to come to terms with what happened last month. “They are still assessing damage to fences, and haven’t yet got to the point of deciding what happens further ahead,” Mr Brodie said.
Historically, offering agistment had not been ‘big’ in the Winton area, with most local producers preferring to buy cattle to make use of extra available feed, he said.
“But many are probably still talking to their financiers, and making decisions about the best route forward. Another inch or two of rain would help provide some clarity on that.”
Mr Brodie said the pasture response in his region had been mixed, depending on how heavily it had been grazed prior to the rain.
“If it was flogged down, the response has been fairly slow, but for people who looked after their country and have some remaining Mitchell grass tussocks, the feed is kicking away a lot quicker.
“But there’s also signs of new Mitchell grass sprouting from seed, and its one reason why owners are reluctant to introduce cattle too soon. They’d like to see the Mitchell seedlings get up a little bit first.”
“It’s another reason why we need another inch or so of rain. If it comes in the next couple of weeks, it could deliver another 30 or 40 percent in volume of available feed,” he said.
“As it is, we are on the knife’s edge, We will have good feed here for six or seven months, but if we happen to get just a little more rain, we could run a lot more cattle through to next summer.”
“The Mitchell grass will get away a bit longer and deliver better feed later into the year.”
Some reports have suggested isolated small mobs of 200-300 head from NSW had found agistment in the tick-free country between Winton and Julia Creek.
Cloncurry agent Peter Dowling, from Dowling Livestock & Property, estimates he has received 90 agistment inquiries in a few days last week.
“My phone never stopped for three days,” he said. “The inquiries have come from anywhere from south of Winton to Wagga in NSW, and all areas in between,” he said.
Mr Dowling said there was still very little local country that had been made available for agistment since the February rain.
“Property owners are still out fencing and getting things back in order. The season here has not responded greatly. Country that was flooded has silt all over it. As strange as it might sound, that country needs another inch or two of rain to really get grass growing again,” he said.
“Further south towards Winton, Boulia and Longreach that got some good rain, without the flood impact, it’s a different story.”
Mr Dowling said buffel country around Cloncurry would typically germinate and seed within a week or ten days of a rain event, but this time it took three weeks.
“Locally here around Cloncurry, the buffel grass is now starting to look alright,” he said.
Mr Dowling said stock routes in the region were still in recovery mode.
“Winton shire stock routes remain shut, to let them recover a little and repair fences, and Longreach is still only light, so far as grass is concerned. One or two mobs would see the end of it. Most stock routes between Cloncurry to Hughenden are still being repaired after fencing damage,” he said.
Richmond-based stock agent Luke Westaway, from Stockplace Marketing, said he, too, had fielded a huge number of calls from people looking for agistment – some arriving while last month’s flood rain was still falling.
“It showed how desperate people are. They’ve come from all the dry areas of eastern Australia – the Northern Territory, the northern half of NSW, and throughout southern Queensland,” he said.
Mr Westaway said he did not think there would be any great volume of agistment made available in his area any time soon.
“While it’s been better further south towards Winton, there’s been very limited growth so far in country around Richmond exposed to flooding,” he said.
“While there has been a huge number of agistment inquiries, nobody here is taking it on, for a couple of reasons. The first is that some producers who lost cattle through the flood already have their own cattle available to restock from their other breeder properties. The second is the very slow grass response, which will see the number of agistment cattle arriving closely matched to the amount of feed that is available.”
Mr Westaway estimated that only 30pc of the properties that had been flooded, or across the whole district, would be in a position to take on agistment cattle, even if they wanted to.
“Some will simply wait a bit longer, to let the country recover a little,” he said.
Further away from the flooded country along the Flinders and Saxby rivers, cattle losses were much lighter, and while there might be some extra grazing capacity available, those owners would largely use the country themselves.
“With southern cattle markets hitting the wall in the past two weeks due to big numbers, some northern producers – currently understocked but with an emerging body of feed in front of them – might elect to invest in replacements themselves, rather than offer agistment,” Mr Westaway said.