‘We’ve got no money left’
FATHER-OF-THREE Scott Todd spent last Christmas Day driving his hungry herd of cattle along the stock routes of drought-stricken southwest Queensland.
At that stage things were pretty dire, the three sprawling properties he owns near Bollon reduced to naked plains of dirt.
With the price of fodder sky high and his herd too poorly to sell, he was left with a depressing last resort - leaving his young family at home to go droving in search of mulga.
Ten months down the track, there's been no significant rain and the family's financial situation has slipped from dire to perilous.
"We've got no money left," Scott said from the farmhouse where they are raising three children Grace, 9, Will, 7, and Olivia, 5.
He and his veterinarian wife Alison are about to start loading up their business with debt to feed their animals until the skies finally open and god knows when that will be.
When the protein-rich cotton seed they have stored under an enormous tarp is gone, it will be off to the bank to get a loan for the next load at a jaw-dropping price of $45,000.
Even so, it will only take another month for the 3000 odd sheep they still have left on Brigalow Downs to eat through that.
The couple must also find the money to keep 450 head of cattle on another property Scott found after nine long weeks on the stock routes.
There'll be a trickle of cash before Christmas when they're able to offload some of their 4000 goats and ewes now lambing on their properties seven hours west of Brisbane.
But there is no escaping the yawning gap between money out and money in.
If there's no decent rain by the end of November to generate some growth in their paddocks, the couple will be stockless before another year is out.
To make the road ahead seem less forbidding, the couple constantly reviews and modifies their survival plan.
"We break it down and say this is what we're doing until this day, and then we'll reassess it. Otherwise the anxiety and the pressure and the stress and the depression becomes too much and you just can't function properly," Scott says.
"Sometimes you drive down the paddock, and pull up and think what the f---ing hell am I doing.
"How am I going to do this? There's only one of me and I can't afford more staff or whatever. Right now I'm in the worst spot I've ever been in my life."
Alison keeps the farm book and dreads the prospect of spending $45,000 a month on feed, even at concessional loan rates.
"How do you come back from that when you are borrowing it?"
She's frank about the mental pressure she is under and has turned to running to cope with the relentless burden of a drought that just won't end.
For half an hour or so each evening she escapes out the farmhouse door for a rare moment of solitude, away from the abandoned lambs that must be bottle fed three to four times a day, away from the kitchen, away from the farm's books.
Scott, who recently attended a workshop on mental resilience, doesn't want to be seen as a whinger and says he and his family have chosen a life reliant on the elements.
But without a radical rethink on drought assistance, he fears Australia could lose its next generation of farmers including his own kids.
He says individual help for farmers has been so woefully inadequate for so long that it could force him to turn away from the Coalition for the first time in his life.
"We're the most loyal Liberal and National voters. We'll never vote for Labor but we're going to have to vote independent," Scott says.
It's a stark warning for Drought Minister David Littleproud who holds the federal seat that takes in Brigalow Downs.
"We can't keep voting for you when you hang us out to dry. We've had their backs but they've never got ours."
At nine years of age Grace knows how to drive a ute, a motorbike and a quad bike. It'll be the tractor next but she's not tall enough yet.
She's used to watching lambs die, even some of those rescued from the paddocks after being abandoned by ewes too depleted to mother them.
Sitting in the back of her dad's ute she is tender with the latest feeble creature plucked from the dirt, gently stroking its back as it lies limply in her lap.
Back at the house, she readies bottles of rich formula for the band of bleating orphans being hand-reared in the family's fenced yard, away from the birds of prey that regularly pick off newborns in the paddocks.
She has named the latest orphan Ghost. It can't stand and it won't take the bottle, even though Grace is an expert at gently applying pressure to its snout to encourage suckling.
In the end it's futile. Ghost doesn't make it.
A few days ago it finally rained at Brigalow Downs. It wasn't much: 10 millimetres, to add to the 29mm that has fallen since December last year.
It's no game changer but it's just enough to ensure there'll be no dust storms for the next week or so.
"It's a start, and you've got to start somewhere."
Grace is sure it's a sign that the drought might end soon.
"It is concerning that the sheep are dying and one day we might not have anything left," she says.
"I just try and encourage mum and dad that the drought will break. I say nope, it's going to rain."