Yesterday I shot a cow: 3027. I shot her twice through the back of the head with a small-bore rifle. She was weak and unwell, because of drought, and I had to ‘put her out of her misery’ as they say. The question arose: who would put me out of mine?
Several weeks ago I had discovered 3027 in the hill paddock, down, unable to get up. The sight of a ‘downer’ cow is a depressing one. They look like they don’t understand what has happened to them and usually you don’t either. Commonly they never get up again. Your second thought, after acknowledging their predicament, is the question: are there more cows like this one that I haven’t seen? Your third, especially in a dry time: is there something wrong with the feed or the amount of feed I’m giving them? And so on.
With the help of the tractor I managed to lift 3027 to her feet and get her legs to hold steady. I brought her some hay and a bucket of water. The next day she was still standing so I walked her, with her calf, down to the ‘hospital paddock’, the small paddock that sits in front of my house and garden.
For several weeks 3027 seemed to be travelling okay: eating from all the available sources, drinking water and feeding her calf. It felt like a win. I had prevented a certain loss. Then, two days ago, she was down again, next to the pile of cottonseed, unable to get up. It takes a great deal of energy for a cow to lift her bodyweight from the ground to stand. For whatever reason, 3027 no longer had the energy or the strength. I fed and watered her as best I could, but despite her stool being firm and copious she faded. The humane thing to do was to shoot her. But there was no good in it for the human. Some will argue I should have shot her the day I first found her. That I have wasted time, energy and feed on a bad risk. They’re probably right but where are we without hope?
As you might have guessed, I am a farmer. According to the most recent ABS figures the average Australian farmer is my age, fifty-effing-six, a man, and is either running livestock or growing wheat. I run livestock. I am white, heterosexual, unimpressed by the city and often told by my wife that I look like I slept in the car. My farming mates hold true to this standard. Many are neater, smarter and more successful but few would ever see the value in consulting a mirror. (Which is probably why male farmers look so rough and ready when they appear on TV.) We farmers live in an old world of homogenous race, culture and sexual orientation where the history of the local Indigenous people is acknowledged chiefly by their descendants, and generally by the ABC, the Department of Education and sometimes a harassed mining company, but otherwise it is considered non-existent. Our own early history is sparsely recorded, which feels suspiciously intentional. So it goes without saying we are oblivious to the irony of boasting that we have been here for several generations. It is a capital-intensive world and the only way to become one of us is either to marry a farmer, inherit a farm or buy a farm by earning, inheriting or stealing a lot of money.
But that has nothing to do with my downer cow.
When you are drought-feeding large mobs of cattle, individuals die. They just do. Some of them can’t handle the crush of their fellow bovines, the stress of it, the bullying (which has nothing to do with the root word ‘bull’ apparently) and so they never get as much feed as the type ‘A’ personalities. Others, because of hunger, poison themselves by gorging on grain or by sampling plants or products they would never normally go near, or they get stuck and stranded in a fence they were jumping over to get to where the grass is, only proverbially, greener.
If cows get in poor condition they become susceptible to all sorts of diseases and misadventures that can kill them. When they are weak they will bog in a dam that at any other time they might have walked straight out of, and they will struggle to give birth to a calf that would normally require no more than a little extra persistence. It may seem like a ‘survival of the fittest’ process is going on here but that concept is just as untrue as it was back when Charles Darwin didn’t coin the phrase. The ones that survive aren’t necessarily the ‘fittest’, just as those at the top in a meritocracy don’t necessarily have merit.
In all likelihood 3027 found herself in an impossible position, not because she wasn’t the ‘fittest’, but because she fed her offspring too well—put too much of her own nutrients towards feeding her calf, causing her body weight to be reduced, disadvantaging her when things turned tough. She might have done the right thing and stayed in the less-than-lush paddock I put her in because she didn’t have the athleticism or the chutzpah to leap into a better one (including the neighbour’s). Cows with greater body weight are better bullies, so 3027 stood to lose on all fronts because of traits that, in any other year, would have made her a star in the herd.
After a while a mob of handfed cows become like children: demanding, totally dependent on you and capable of getting into trouble wherever it can be found. If they can bust a water pipe, bend the door on a vehicle or hook their foot in a fence, they blithely will. Sometimes, seeing them, yet again, first thing in the morning, calling, needy, insistent, can be overwhelming. But there is something extraordinary about moving among 500–600kg animals that could knock you down with a simple step to the side and yet do not. Some of that is due to thousands of years of selective breeding and some of it is just the way they are. Of course the minute you say something like that a cow will knock you down for no other reason than you were in the way. But I’m exaggerating for cheap effect: you usually know the cows in the mob that are likely to give you trouble.
I’m not in the business of arguing figures but according to the ABS 4102.0—Australian Social Trends, December 2012: ‘The number of farmers in Australia has been declining for many decades as small farmers sell up to large-scale farming operations, and fewer young people take over family farms. Over the 30 years to 2011, the number of farmers declined by 106,200 (40%).’
Now, even I would not say 2011 is up to date (it’s the most recent I could find) but a 40 per cent loss is an astounding figure for an industry that still exists. I don’t know what the statisticians and economists would say is going on here but I can tell you farming is a cutthroat business. You either succeed or you fail and then the neighbours buy you out. Drought support from governments may well cause people in the city to think agrarian socialism, as it was sometimes humorously referred to in the Australian political context, is alive and well. Not to my knowledge.
If you miss a crop or have a bad calving or a rubbish wool clip it’s likely your borrowings will go up. As your borrowings rise the banks increase the ‘risk margin’ they place on your loans. Bank loans to farmers are never at the low rates of bank loans to home owners. So the worse your financial position is, the harder they make it for you. As they should, right? They’re in the business of aggregating money. I mean they’re a bank, not a charity. Even if both of them accept money from the dead.
Climate change science has it that we farmers are going to see more of this. The prospect is that it’s not necessarily getting drier overall but that it’s going to be hotter and the attendant evaporation will have the effect of making it drier. But I’m sure you know that. It’s the sort of thing you only don’t know because you don’t want to know.
But drought has long been part of Australian folklore.
In September 1892 Henry Lawson travelled ‘drought-stricken’ western New South Wales. The experience influenced his work for the rest of his life. In ‘The Drover’s Wife’ (a story so often reimagined I can’t help feeling the poor woman must be heartily sick of burning that friggin’ snake), the husband has become a drover because ‘The drought of 18 – – ruined him. He had to sacrifice the remnant of his flock and go droving again.’ The desperate, isolated situation in ‘The Drover’s Wife’ is created by drought.
Stories abound of young men in Western Australia in the early 1900s who were so sick of drought-feeding sheep they were pleased to be called up to the First World War. ‘Couldn’t be worse,’ they were supposed to have said. How little anyone ever knows about how bad things can get.
One of my friends told me that the best thing about this drought is that he won’t have to listen any more to his father telling him he’s never known a ‘real’ drought because he was too young to remember ’65. ‘In ’65 water was so scarce we had to make tea from our own urine,’ and so on. But 2018 was worse than 1965, around here at least, and probably 1945 and maybe the ones before that. But the bigger fear, for me at least, is that the drought of 2020 or 2022 will be worse again. As will the ones afterwards. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports in their cautious, bureaucratic ‘no-no you first’ language, think I’m on to something (or the other way around), in the same way Noah was when he decided to build a boat for a flood that only God believed was coming. But our deadline is hundreds of years less favourable.
So drought is behind us and with us but the science says it is also in front of us in ways we don’t want to imagine.
Farmers would appear to be accepting the existence of anthropogenic climate change but we have been slow to the party. The common responses have been noted elsewhere: ‘Of course the climate is changing, it’s always been changing,’ which shifted to: ‘I believe climate change is real but I’m not convinced it’s caused by humans.’ Sometimes this arises from that old-horse self-interest: if I accept that human-induced climate change exists, what controls will I have to accept over my farm business? And to be equitable, farmers are well accustomed to experts telling them what the future holds. When the expert predictions turn out to be spectacularly wrong, as they often do, the sufferer of the consequences of that mistake is usually the farmer, not the expert. And while we are constantly reminded that there is a difference between weather and climate, it is difficult not to think the competencies might be linked. The weather bureau’s long-term forecasts are not good examples of predictions that can be relied on.
It’s worth mentioning that not all struggling farmers are pure of spirit. Some make cynical use of government drought payments and community-supplied feed. Others demand welfare to help them with disasters of their own making. The question that persists at farming get-togethers I attend is: where does all the drought support money go?
In September there was something of a ‘backlash’ from some farmers about how the drought was being represented by the media. Individual farmers expressed their annoyance that the media was choosing to highlight farmers who were at the end of their emotional and financial tethers. The annoyed farmers argued that most weren’t in this situation; most farmers looked after their stock and were prepared for drought.
They were concerned that the emotional stories presented by the likes of breakfast television made farmers look like whingers and opened the gate for attacks from animal-rights organisations. Their case is a valid one and one held by many good people I know. We ask ourselves: why are we always portrayed as hopeless caricatures? (Is it possible that we should work harder at providing good stories when the times are good?) Farmers do deserve better than being portrayed as perpetually desperate, and if the survival of our farms and our industries is reliant on sympathy then it will be a short walk to the gallows.
The problem is, when you broadcast a ‘backlash’ opinion you also risk denigrating those farmers at the bottom who really are struggling and may well be suicidal.
One farmer controversially talked about drought being a necessary evil because it can help cut out the bottom 10 per cent who probably shouldn’t be there anyway. It was reminiscent of John Williamson’s 1986 song ‘Galleries of Pink Galahs’ from Malley Boy:
It takes a harsh and cruel drought
To sort the weaker saplings out,
It makes room for stronger trees
Maybe that’s what life’s about.
And you know, I get it, I’ve heard plenty of farmers say this sort of thing but it’s not what life’s about. It pits farmer against farmer. It says winners should not be tarnished by losers. It also presumes there will still be saplings.
I could be wrong but I don’t remember this differentiation happening in previous droughts. Farming is more a ‘business’ than it’s ever been and as a business, image is important. But I wonder with the existence of climate variability, even if you don’t accept it’s human induced, whether this is the smartest approach from the farming community. If mental health and the high incidence of suicide are such large problems in the rural community then drawing an outspoken line between winners and losers can’t really be helpful, can it? I imagine some farmers who are struggling are already feeling stupid and hopeless. That’s what I feel when things go badly for me. Like when I shoot a cow I thought I’d saved. Do we really need to confirm those feelings are justified?
Even though I accept the rationale of not focusing on the battlers, I can’t help but feel there’s something really icky behind the sentiment. If you’ve ever had beers with blokes who’ve been successful in the money market you’ll know the feeling I’m talking about. Success trumps every sin. And ‘I’m all right, Jack’ so easily masquerades as business acumen.
There are many warnings about governments ‘propping up unsustainable businesses’. Which makes it sound like there are poor farmers everywhere living high on the hog (as it were) on government support. Really? It might be worth examining what passes for government ‘support’ and ‘sustainability’ at the top end of agriculture too.
The comments also illustrate a shift that, to me, is becoming increasingly marked in agriculture: farming is less and less a place for the bottom end of town. Large farming operations have much greater capital and capacity to ride out a drought. Henry Lawson echoed this (or rather I’ve echoed him) in his piece ‘Help is needed’: ‘The big squatter, bank or company, with many stations have a margin for drought losses … It is the small squatter, cockatoo, selector or farmer who suffers so cruelly …’
These days most farms are still ‘family farms’ but they are bigger than they have ever been. Many of them are the sort of diverse, high-turnover, broad-acre operations that will not be sent to the wall by a couple of missed crops. They are sophisticated businesses with the funds to plan, wargame and future proof (whatever that means). A year without income is sufficient to burden a smaller operation with enough debt to prevent them ever fully recovering. The ability to survive drought largely intact means bigger operations are ready to take advantage of expansion opportunities when the dust literally settles. It seems to me when someone runs the line ‘if you can’t stand the heat you should get out of the kitchen’ it is always worth checking how close they are standing to the fridge.
There is nothing unprecedented in all of this. It has been happening in white agriculture for well over a century. But it usually happens slowly. Evolution not revolution. It feels like it could happen a lot faster from now on. Maybe ‘successful’ farmers think that is a healthy thing for their industry. But it worries me that it presumes that the people struggling are the ones who aren’t very good at their job. If you have been in drought for more than two years and you are still holding it together but in the process of selling up, then for my money, you are an extremely good manager, physically and mentally. If climate change brings us more regular droughts, more severe frosts and a greater frequency and intensity of other natural disasters such as bushfire and flood, how does anyone, except the most well-padded investor, remain certain they’ll stay out of the bottom 10 per cent?
By the time this essay reaches daylight it will probably have rained and the boom seasons will have returned. Some might wonder what all the fuss was about.
But I am worried for all of us. Farming has always been competitive; has forever been about winners and losers and farmers have always known that. But climate change has the capacity to make all but a few of us battlers, all but those with the biggest bodyweights,
losers. What image will we want to portray when that happens?
Richard Anderson is a farmer and writer. His current novel is Boxed. His next, Small Mercies, which shares inspiration with this essay, will be out in April 2020.