australia drought creek before and after
Just one year separates the flowing creek and lush grass on the left from the same location 365 days later, pictured on the right. • Photos by Kelli Barron

Australian Drought: Survival Down Under

More than 12.35 million acres burned during the Australian drought. At least 24 people lost their lives and 2,000-plus homes were destroyed. Countless animals were lost, burned, dead.

These are the numbers released in early January from officials regarding the bushfires in Australia. And those figures don’t scratch the surface of what has gone on in the country for the past two years as a result of the extreme drought. Even with the rainfall that finally hit in the first part of 2020, flooding ensued and the distress continues.

Three ranchers scattered around Australia shared their stories of what it’s been like trying to survive with horses and cattle in what experts say were the worst drought conditions seen since America’s Dust Bowl.

The Simons: Lockyear Valley, Queensland

“I never really understood it until I moved here,” Kendal Kern Simon said. “They talked about the drought and how Australia goes from one extreme to another, but I didn’t understand it until I got here.”

When Simon married the love of her life, cutting horse trainer Grant Simon, in his home country of Australia in 2015, the fields were lush and green. Talk of the new family moving its training operation from Texas to Australia seemed like a wonderful idea at the time.

However, upon their arrival in 2017, the green grass was already drying up and the lush fields Kendal Simon remembered were but a memory. The problem, Simon soon realized, was that most of the country doesn’t have ground water.

“Yes there’s irrigation here, but with the drought going on, there’s been no rainfall. So, the water has turned very salty,” she explained. “The ground water, what very little ground water they have, is salt water. A lot of the farms around here are at half-production because they can’t grow crops on salty water.”

Map of Australian drought conditions, as of Dec. 31, 2019, courtesy of the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Farms are currently unable to meet production forecasts, and the only crop that can grow with the salty water is alfalfa hay. However, because of the dry weather, it’s difficult to bale — the leaves fall right off the stems, thus diminishing the nutritional value of the hay.

For a time, the majority of ranchers paid for shipments of hay from Southern Australia. Ranchers are paying $30-35 for each square bale of alfalfa hay. One client of the Simons’ purchased a $45,000 truckload of hay that will barely last them a month.

“That was the only place that had rain,” Simon said. “But, now the southern portion of the country is all on fire. It’s pretty scary because if we can’t make hay here, we have to get it from there, but with the fires, it’s all burning up.”

The Simons keep 20-25 horses in training, running a skeleton crew with just the couple and some help from their 7-year-old son, Deklan. They take advantage of the sale yard just a couple miles down the road from their ranch for their cattle supply.

A cattle company comes from the East Coast of Australia with truckloads of cattle to drop off for the Simons to care for. While the cattle are on the couple’s property, they feed and tend to the livestock in exchange for free use in their training business. After a few weeks, the company returns to pick up the cattle and take them to the sale. The process repeats itself on a routine basis, eliminating the need for constant care and feed.

“We can’t turn the cattle out to graze because we have nothing for them to graze, so we have to feed hay,” Simon explained of the full-circle problem for her husband’s cutting operation.

Around the end of 2019, there no hay left to purchase in the area. At first the Simons resorted to alfalfa pellets they bought from the local feed store, but then that, too, ran out.

While Simon and her husband face their own challenges, she knows she is one of the lucky ones when compared those plagued with wildfires in Australia, but she can’t help but worry about what’s to come next for her family’s livelihood.

“It’s been such a domino effect because we have so many clients that do have a lot of money, but their money comes from being a primary producer [farmer],” she said. “So, if they’re struggling with no rain to feed their livestock, they don’t have a lot of money to pass along to training horses. That’s just a luxury.

“It’s hard because these people pay a lot of money to train their horses, but there’s a really good reason that there might not be any shows this year. They can’t get any cattle because it’s too dry and people can’t feed them.”

The Barrons: Tara, Queensland

“We’re just red dirt and nothing,” Kelli Barron, another Texas transplant to Australia, described of Tara, which is located in Queensland. “We’ve had a few fires around us, but they’ve since been put out. The worst of the fires are 12 hours south of us.”

barren land from australian drought
The drought in Australia has made it difficult for ranchers to keep their livestock alive and healthy. • Photo by Kelli Barron

Barron and her husband, Grant, have a ranch that sits on 3,000 acres. That expansive stretch right now only houses 180 head of cattle and four horses, a significant drop in numbers from previous years.

“There is literally not a blade of grass around,” she explained. “There used to be dead grass, but the cattle have eaten it all. It’s just gone. It’s dirt. We’ve been losing one or two cattle a week.”

Barron and her husband own a liquid cattle supplement distribution company, so the drought has actually spurred their business, but it’s no less heartbreaking.

“When we get to some places, they’ll have big troughs where we’ll pour our supplement into for their cattle. It can cost around $1,000 a trough, and my husband is filling these troughs weekly,” she said. “We’ve seen the worst of the cattle; you just can’t keep enough feed on them. It’s really good money for us, but you almost feel guilty taking it.”

To feed their cattle and horses, the Barrons pay $225 for a round bale of hay, if they can find it, and a truckload of grain that lasts a week costs $8,000. Even though their ranch has four dams located around the property, there was no longer any water stored. The rain tanks attached to their house were bone dry, as well.

Prior to the rain that finally fell in late January 2020, the last time Barron saw precipitation at her home was December 2018.

“I visited my family in Denton, Texas, over the holidays and the first two days I was there, they had three inches of rain. I told my family that was how much rain we had had — total — in over 13 months,” she said.

The Webbs: Jingellic, New South Wales

horse with burns
The bushfires in Australia have wreaked havoc on livestock. Four of the Webbs’ mares were found burned, while one remains missing. • Photo courtesy of Phil & Dawn Webb

“This has been a horrific time for many people in Australia, with so many losing hundreds, even thousands, of sheep, cattle, horses and their homes,” said Phil Webb.

Webb, who with his wife Dawn trains cutters and reined cow horses, said January was a tumultuous month. Bushfires ravaged their ranch, located about 320 miles southwest of Sydney. Webb, who has been a trainer, judge and breeder in the industry since 1976, admitted he’s never seen anything like this in his career.

On New Year’s Eve, the Webbs were eight hours away from their ranch when they heard a fire was hitting Jingellic in New South Wales.

“We weren’t able to get to the property till the next day, because all the roads were closed,” Webb recalled. “It was very scary, not knowing what we would arrive to when we got to the ranch.”

The couple was prepared with a truck to load all their cattle and calves. They found the herd in fine shape, but four of their five horses were severely burned and unable to walk up the hill to where the trailer was parked. They had to return with a different truck and trailer that could handle the steep terrain to rescue the injured horses. Four were loaded up, while the fifth, a mare, was still missing as of early February.

The Webbs mares were treated at Charles Start University. Although one could not be saved, three are well on their way to recovery. • Photo courtesy of Phil & Dawn Webb

“It was an emotional situation to see your beautiful cutting-bred mares that had just been confirmed in foal in such terrible conditions,” Webb said. “We immediately were on the phone with some of the top vets in Australia, who recommended we take them to the University.”

The four mares received treatment at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga. They all suffered severe burns to their legs, between their legs, to their tails, stomachs and some on their faces.

Even with the best of care, the Webbs lost one mare, who had the most severe burns over her body. The others progressed well under the university’s care; however, the couple is still on the lookout for their missing horse. They still hold out hope that perhaps she’s been kept safe in a neighbor’s pasture and they’ll find her soon.

Rain, Rain, Please Stay

The stretch of 36 months from January 2017 to December 2019 were the driest on record in Australia’s history, according to the Australian Government’s Bureau of Meteorology. In January, rain finally fell to the ground across parts of the country.

Lockyear Valley and Tara only saw an inch, but other areas were lucky enough to get 2-3 inches.

“You would have thought we had gotten 30 inches as excited as we were,” Barron.

Caution must also accompany any downpour, the National Cutting Horse Association of Australia Marketing and Communications Coordinator Ebonie Sadler-Small said. Without anything on the ground to soak up the rain, standing water and mudslides can abound.

“One issue we are facing is that large, quick downpours in the recent weeks have washed away topsoil,” she explained. “However, the rains over the past week have been steadier, thus sinking into the ground, which has been uplifting to those who have received it.

“We are all loving the rain as it comes and are hanging out for it to continue.”