NT Country Hour from ABC

by Carmel Brown

Late wet-season rains may have saved the year ahead for cattle stations in the Barkly region of the Northern Territory.

Usually known for its lush green pastures and expansive black soil plains, the Barkly Tablelands support some of the largest properties in the Top End.

And for many stations in the region, rain has fallen just in time.

By the end of last year feed was thin on the ground and de-stocking had begun, mostly in areas bordering Queensland.

For Avon Downs Station, 400 kilometres east of Tennant Creek, cattle were being sent interstate as the dry season continued well past December.

In good times, the Avon Downs and Austral pastoral leases, owned by the Australian Agricultural Company, can hold around 40,000 head but the country was getting so poor that only 13,000 remained at the start of this year.

Manager Matthew Barrett was preparing to remove more cattle this month, however well-timed rain has negated the need.

“Last year was very ordinary, we had very limited rainfall.

“At the end of February, we had good rain from there,” he said.

“So we had 250 millimetres for the wet season at Avon and down at Austral we had 350 millimetres for the wet season which is still below average but it’s a lot better than it was.”

He says stock camp staff were recalled early because there was so little rain.

“We were making good plans to de-stock at the end of February.

“We went as far as getting all the men back, horses shod and choppers booked – the whole deal – and it rained that Sunday night,” he said.

“We’ve got ten stock staff here now all looking longingly towards the horse yards.”

While those stations in the southern and eastern Barkly may just scraping through, those in the west have fared significantly better.

Photo: Lee Ford and her husband Ken have lived on the property for 12 years. (Carl Curtain)

The wet season has delivered for cattle country along the Stuart Highway.

At Tennant Creek Station, the horses are still in the long paddock as the top soil dries out.

Owner Lee Ford and her husband, Ken, have been able to enjoy time away from the property.

Lee says it’s always a relief to see the storm clouds open up.

“It was a late start, in January, but ever since then it has been beautiful.

“We haven’t had rain now for about three weeks but it’s still too wet to get around,” she said.

She says there are a couple of market options being considered for the stock once mustering can begin.

“Hopefully they’ll go on the boat, that’s where we’ve tried to book some in.

Audio: Rain arrives just in time for Barkly pastoralists (ABC Rural)

“But we haven’t got definites so it’s the boat or maybe the meatworks back in Townsville,” she said.

“It would be lovely to try to get in while (the prices) are decent but there is talk they might not be around too long.”

Further north of Tennant Creek the feed is even thicker and greener on western side of the Barkly.

All work is still on hold at Muckaty Station, 200 kilometres south of Elliot, with the last rains falling only a fortnight ago.

Manager Ray Aylett says it has been the best wet season in four years.

“We’ve had nearly 30 inches of rain this year, so far, so it’s been good.

“You should have seen it last year, it was that bloody dry and bare, now there’s green grass,” he said.

“It’s going to be a good year with fat cattle, I just hope the prices hold up.”

In fact, it’s been raining so much at Muckaty Station that fish have been falling from the sky.

He says he found some aquatic specimens in pools of mud.

“I caught 16 fish out of that little hole there and another hole around the corner I got four more.

“I got some in a bathtub and took photos of them so everybody reckons I’m not bloody telling lies,” he said.

“They must have come out of the sky because that’s the only place I can see them coming from.”