01 Nov Visiting Abbadoah – A Sheep Farm in Drought
After our visit with the mischievous Rod “Gezo” Taylor, we bid farewell and headed off for our next visit, another drought stricken sheep farm. I’d arranged a visit with the Moody family the previous night while Kylie and I were having dinner at the Warrego Hotel. However, dinner soon turned into glasses of vodka, tequila, dancing and karaoke. Thankfully by the time we visited the Moody’s property called ‘Abbadoah’, our heads had cleared, and the 40-degree heat ensured we’d drunk enough water to cleanse our livers!
A Warm Welcome to the Sheep Farm
We arrived around 1pm and by this stage, we weren’t at all surprised to receive another friendly, warm country welcome. We were greeted outside by Sally, Mike and their son Jesse and were quickly ushered into their fabulously cool, air-conditioned home. Air-conditioning isn’t a luxury in the outback, it’s a necessity during the brutal summer months in Cunnamulla. Kylie and I couldn’t help but wonder how the early pioneering farmers managed without it!
Once inside we were offered lunch and a cold beer. However, we were still full after a feed of home-cooked snacks at Rod’s farm, but I gratefully joined the Moody’s in the offer of a cold beer. After a bit of friendly banter, we settled in to hear about the Moody’s life on their outback property and the impact of the 8-year drought.
The Effect Of Drought On The Sheep Farm
Alison: So how has the drought impacted you?
Sally: Have you noticed our humour is very poor? I think that’s changed.
You’d have to say that motivation is low. And I notice it a lot more with Mike who has been here for 60-plus years. There’s lots of deep sighing and just no enthusiasm.
Mike: Oh, well, look around.
Sally: Yes, I know.
Mike: I mean, our sheep farm is not making any money. That’s the trouble.
Jesse: Well, if we haven’t got any stock, we can’t make any money.
The Impact on the Sheep
Mike: I’ll just give you one example. We try to breed 4,000 lambs every year. And we’ve had one lambing in three years. You can get $100 for each lamb. That’s $400,000.
And we’ve had one lambing in three years and it’s only 2,000 lambs. So that’ just one impact.
Jesse: We should be running about 10,000 sheep on the farm at the moment, which would be 4,000 ewes, 4,000 lambs and maybe 2,000 wethers or 2,000 weaner ewes or something like that for the next generation. And there’s a lot less wool, as well. The sheep are cutting a lot less wool during the drought. So, with all of that that we’d be losing a fortune.
For those of you unfamiliar with the farming terms, a wether is a castrated male sheep with no ‘ram like’ characteristics and with more than two permanent teeth.
A weaner is a young sheep that has been weaned, from its mother, until it is about a year old.
Mike: We could be getting 400 or 500 bales of wool a year and I think our best in the last couple of years has only been 80.
The Positives of the Drought
Jesse: But there have been positives to drought, as well. For instance, if we’d always had a good season, we’d just probably keep doing things the way we’ve always done it. But with the drought, we learned that just because we’ve been doing it that way the last few decades, it’s not necessarily the best way.
So, we’re looking at focusing more on our pastures and instead of focusing on what kind of quality our sheep are.
We’re starting to look at what our pastures should be doing and how we can manage our pastures so these droughts aren’t as severe and we can get more longevity and get better water use efficiency out of the rainfall.
Sally: We’re reviewing our practices.
Jesse: So, we could have the best sheep in the world, but if they’ve got nothing to go down their throats, then, we’re wasting our time.
Alison: So, how do you feed the sheep during such a long drought?
Jesse: We’re starting to restrict buying feed because there’s not much point in feeding them because we don’t know how long the drought is going to last.
The Moody’s explained they had previously fed their sheep grain three times a week for a two-year period before it finally rained.
Jesse: And I wouldn’t recommend anyone does that, just because you think it’s going to rain next month doesn’t mean it is. So, I think you need to have a more subjective approach.
Sally: We spent over $100,000 on feed in one 12-month period.
Mike: And we can’t afford to do that any longer. We’re running out of money to do that.
Jesse: You’re basically paying for this lifestyle. And really, we’re a business so we can’t afford to do silly things like that.
A New Approach To Sheep Farming
Jesse tells us there is a new approach to sheep farming they want to try which involves putting the mobs of sheep together.
If we put the mobs together and rotate them around, it is very different to conventional grazing methods. But that would ensure the paddock gets a rest even for six weeks to eight weeks.
Mike: But once you get back to the original paddock and there’s still no food and it still hasn’t rained, you the lighten off by selling some of them. And then you go around again.
Jesse: There are several factors. As you’re getting closer to the paddock you look at the faecal matter and what that’s doing.
And the animals will tell you from their faecal matter how healthy they are.
For instance, if the faecal matter clumps together that means they’re healthy. But if it looks pebbled, like little pellets everywhere, it means they’ve got too much fibre and not enough nutrients.
Mike explains that if the drought persists and they need to continually destock, they will eventually have no stock left.
Sally: At the moment we have other farmers’ sheep here and we’ve said: ‘They have to go’.
So, they don’t know what they’re going to do because they’ve got a mob here and a mob next door, and they look good.
But we can’t sustain it. I don’t know what next door’s doing. I can’t imagine they can sustain it, either. You know, we all need the small amount of feed for whatever is out there.
So, they’ve got to go. And you feel awful because you’re making them make the decision. But we even have the same decision ourselves. You know, we can last a bit longer, but how much longer?
Mike says when it comes to surviving the drought, many farmers must decide whether to try and maintain their stock or sell them off before the animals become drought stricken.
Jesse: If you’re destocking, you need to destock early when your livestock are in good condition because if you go, “Oh, no, we’ll just hang on a bit longer”, suddenly you’ve got this skinny, run-out stock and no one has the feed to fatten them out.
Kylie: So, do you have a sense of when the drought might end?
Mike: I’d like to think it’ll break pretty soon, in the next couple of months. I mean, the monsoon activity is starting up north now, and it’s got to end soon. I mean, how many summers now since we had decent rain?
Jesse: 2000. This is our eighth summer without rain.
Mike: I reckon if we don’t get summer rain this time there’ll be nothing left.
I certainly believe the climate’s changing. There are certainly different seasonal patterns now compared to when I was a kid.
We used to get rain and summer storms starting in October. We’d get summer storms, and then January, February, March were our big rainfall years.
And then you’re set up for the rest of the year. We’d have a bit of winter rain, we used to get winter rain, too, which was the cream on the coffee, but we don’t get that anymore, either.
Jesse: We’ve had more winter rain fall in the last seven years than we’ve had summer rainfall.
Mike: The drought’s got a lot to do with the heat waves, I reckon. When I was a kid, we’d get a heat wave for three or four days, and then you’d get a cool change and be back to the average. The average for this month, January, is 36 degrees. We’re running at an average of 43 degrees at the moment. It’s been 40 degrees now since before Christmas.
Sally: We have never run this air conditioner in here 24 hours a day before. Ever.
Mike: When this house was built in 1965, there was no air conditioning. Not even in the bedrooms. And it wasn’t until like 1980, it’s in the mid-’80s that my parents decided, “Oh, we’d better put an air conditioner” in their room and then in my room.
Kylie: So, what’s the plan? Are you thinking of selling the property?
Sally: Well, we’ve been going through succession for a couple of years. And the plan was always to grow the business. So, starting off maybe with Jesse buying a place down south, where we thought there was rain. Or Jesse going down there, slowly selling off this, us moving down there, and, you know, drifting into old age.
But because we can’t sell, we’re kind of locked in here. So, it’s controversial in that when we’ve got a project on, like land marking and lots of stuff, Mike can’t think of being anywhere else.
So, from our point of view, I think we’ve reached a stage where we need to ease up. But I don’t like the idea of us just moving off to Brisbane or the coast. I mean, boring. That would be really boring.
So, we don’t know. I keep saying; “Sell everything” and we can go somewhere else where Jesse can buy in and have his share. Then we are caretaker-employee type people and we can retreat to Brisbane or the coast and then come back and work.
I think that’s the ideal scenario. And some days, everybody agrees with me, and other days, everybody says, “Oh, yeah. That’s it. You just want to sell. But Jesse just wants to stay here and work his magic.
Jesse: Oh, I like working here. I mean, there’s a good bunch of people out here at the moment. And I’m really eager to start practicing regenerative agriculture now that we’re starting to control the pests a bit.
Alison: So, you’ve obviously done a lot of research and studied this?
Jesse: Yeah, yeah, I have. I’ve done a few courses, and I want to learn more about it because I think it’s the future of agriculture. I think if we continue grazing pastures the way we have, using the European structure in Australia, I just don’t think it’s going to work. And we’ll slowly desertify good pastures like we are now.
Jesse: So the European system of grazing was you put 300 mob of sheep in paddock and you leave them there for 12 months, bring them in, you shear them, you put them back in there, and just do that year in, year out.
Whereas, you have 10 paddocks on your place, and you’ve got 300 sheep in each paddock, and you just go to each paddock whenever you need to and bring them in.
But then you’ve got the holistic grazing method, which is a new kid on the block, and it’s like the vegan of agriculture. Some people hate it, some people like it.
But instead of having 300 sheep in each paddock and there’s 10 paddocks, you’ve got 3,000 sheep in one big mob, and you move them from paddock to paddock for different durations of time based on how much rainfall you’ve had in the last 12 months.
It depends on what the pasture’s doing, what their poo is doing, and what part of the operation you’re doing, as well.
And the idea is so you don’t flog it out of each pasture. You’re just taking the top off each time and maintaining the ground cover. They always say that if you’ve got one horse in a paddock, it will eventually chew it out.
Whereas if you’ve got one horse in that paddock for a day, it’ll have no effect. So, it’s the same sort of principal.
Jesse: If we can keep the sheep, because if we rotate the pastures around with things like leaf fall, we’ll be able to hang on for about another three months, before things get grim.
The Impact on The Town
The drought hasn’t just affected the animals, it’s affected the whole of Cunnamulla. The quaint country town was once a thriving hub of activity yet when Kylie and I visited in January, shops were closed and those that were open were just open long enough to serve the few people we saw wandering around town.
Mike: There used to be a couple of thousand people in the town back in the ’50s and ’60s. And up until the mid ’70s and all the pubs were thriving, there were seven pubs and a couple of clubs. There were three football teams. Every pub had a cricket team. Now they can’t get one rugby league team.”
Alison: So, what has happened do you think to make everyone leave?
Mike: The drought, and the demise of the wool industry.
Sally: And it’s a generational thing. Everybody wants to give their children more than they had. No one wants them to work like they did. So, their kids have been encouraged, I suppose that’s always happened, been encouraged to go away, but not necessarily encouraged to come back. “Go away. Get yourselves a trade.”
Jesse: I disagree with that. A lot of guys have been encouraged to come back to help their father out on the property. There’s a really good bunch of young people in Cunnamulla on the properties.
Mike: Yes, but they’re not in town. The businesses in town are really struggling because the population’s not here anymore.
Jesse: I went off to do a trade, and then I rushed through that, played a bit of rugby, and then came back here. This will be my eighth year back.
Alison: So, for a young person, how do you meet people? How do you socialize
Jesse: Oh well, there’s not many bachelors going around, but there’s opportunity to meet people out here. There’d be new teachers and nurses coming out whether you go away to Brisbane. My next-door neighbour’s doing Farmer Wants A Wife. But there’s also events as always. Like, we’ve got our rugby matches here, in town, you’ve just got to travel round a bit.
Kylie: So, tell us about this property.
Mike: My father started in 1948, on a property we still own, with his brother. And we’ve since built that up, too, in acreage. Then he bought this place in 1961, original 15,000 acres, so my sisters and I could go to school in town.
Mike: Yeah, and then my three sisters boarded with the nuns in town, and I lived with my grandparents, who owned two garages there. Anyway, so we bought this place in 1961, and then in 1983, we bought another 18,000 acres next door.
And then another couple of years ago we bought another 5,000 acres. So now we’ve got 40,000 acres. It’s just barely just a living area. Just a living area. You need a lot more country these days than what you needed, say, a generation ago.
We have a few cattle, be we’re mainly wool growers. We run sheep for food and fibre, as they say.
I think we have 5,000, with the lambs.
On both properties, we could run up to 20,000.
We used to shear 18,000 sheep.
What’s killed the industry, what’s killed this country, really, has been the dog, the dingo menace. And unless you’ve got your sheep under, behind fences to keep the dogs away, you’re not going to have sheep.
So that’s been as bad as the drought. And as far as our family’s concerned, I think it’s been our biggest problem in reducing our income.
Dingoes have really killed our business.
An Update On The Moody’s Sheep Farm – May 2020
Kylie and I were hoping to hear good news from our friends in Cunnamulla, but sadly, the drought lingers and there is still no end in sight. I received this update from Sally just the other week:
Sally: Sadly, what little rain we’ve had this year has fallen in small increments and achieved little, so the drought is still weighing heavily. We are down to absolute low core breeding stock but what we sold, we’ve sold very well.
The market has been hot as you may have heard. We were lucky with rain April 2019: it really sustained us through until about Feb. We had a good lambing, our sheep looked/still look very good and we had a few successful cattle trades. Of course, wool prices are now back to the bad ol’ days, and we’ve just had a shearing! Can’t win them all.
Mike, Jess and myself are all fine. We have Abbadoah on the market and there has been a little interest. It is droughted and that had surprised some who have inspected. They assume everyone has had good rain. We have been in a narrow band where we were just ‘shit-out-o-luck’ as they say.
However, this is a good place and it should sell. Jess will move to our other block Yarmouth and we will look to make our fortunes somewhere cooler, greener and kinder. Maybe New South Wales?
Mike says he doesn’t want to stop work yet, some miles on the clock still, apparently. We are still trying to work out a good solution to manage our easing out and Jess easing in.
Life is very much the same as when we saw you.
Our Visit to the Moody’s Sheep Farm
Kylie and I were both saddened to hear the drought hasn’t broken in Cunnamulla. To be honest, we both had such a wonderful time in this beautiful part of Queensland and we often reminisce about our outback adventure.
The people we met were just so friendly and warm and although they’re all doing it tough out there, they have such a rare and generous spirit.
And while there’s much sadness going on in the world, please keep our Aussie farmers in your thoughts. Support them whenever you can, buy from our Aussie farmers and if you ever visit Cunnamulla or any country town, buy local!
Go into town and support all the businesses because they’re the ones who help keep the town alive. And it is a beautiful town, one that Kylie and I hope to visit again in the near future when travel is allowed.
We’d like to thank the Moody family for sharing their story and opening up their home to a chatty pair of Redheads on a Roadtrip.
And we hope that life on your beautiful sheep farm becomes less of a struggle for you.
Much respect and gratitude to you all,
Alison & Kylie xx