When it started raining in North West Queensland in late January, the region’s farmers could not predict what was in store.
Instead of a welcome break to six years of drought, they were smashed for a week by punishing weather. Rain at an unprecedented level and extreme cold decimated livestock numbers over an area roughly the size of Victoria. Cattle perished by the hundreds of thousands.
Robert and Jacqueline Curley of Gipsy Plains Station, north of Cloncurry, are no strangers to extreme weather events but they had never seen anything like it.
Robert recalls the flood of ’97, saying “We lost a lot of calves then and there was more water over the station”. However, he added, the rain was over sooner and the overall losses were much less.
Robert Curley took over the property from his brother, who purchased it by ballot in 1963. Initially running Shorthorn cattle, they switched to Brahman in the mid-1970s, preferring the tick resistant, quiet and early finishing breed.
Their elite polled Brahman stud was established in the early 1990s and now operates in conjunction with son Clayton, who owns the adjoining Cotswold Station on the opposite bank of the Cloncurry River.
The freak weather event couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Curleys. The couple finally felt – after more than 45 years of hard work – they had bred the ideal herd. Just as their thoughts were turning to stepping away from full-time farming, the skies opened to wipe out 2,500 stud cattle and kilometres of fencing. It was a crushing blow.
Jacqueline explained about 20 per cent of the farm was underwater and it was bitterly cold for days on end.
“There’s no amount of preparation we could have done. It was just too much rain, interspersed with days of freezing winds up to 70kph,” Jacqueline said.
They tried desperately to save bogged and dying cattle, though admitted that their efforts didn’t achieve a great deal.
“But you have to do something,” Jacqueline said.
They were supported through the toughest time by neighbours on adjoining and nearby stations and the Cloncurry community.
“It’s during those hard times you really see the community come together,” Robert said.
“Lots of people did really good things for each other. It restores your faith in human nature,” he adds.
Despite the amount of rain that fell, Robert estimates they’ve only had about a third of their usual wet season feed.
“The grass just hasn’t grown back, we don’t know why,” he said.
“We’re lightly stocked and the cattle we have left are now just starting to get in the sort of condition they should have been in two months ago. The calves, especially, are starting to look really good.”
The Curleys used the $75,000 Special Disaster Assistance Recovery grant, jointly funded by the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments, to quickly tidy up the farm, burying cattle and repairing fences.
”The $75,000 was really helpful because it was available so soon – it gave everyone an injection of funds they needed to just keep going,” Jacqueline said.
They’re now in the process of applying for the $400,000 Restocking, Replanting and On-Farm Infrastructure grant, intending to use it to replenish some of their lost breeders.
“We’ve twice hosted the Prime Minister, and are really grateful for his interest in the area and the Government’s response in making grants available so quickly,” Jacqueline said.
“You really feel like the country is behind you,” she added.
Still reeling from the devastation, down on stock numbers and having lost much of the last four generations of genetics, Robert and Jacqueline are determined to rebuild.
“We’ll be back. It’ll take us some years but we’ll be back. We’ll keep going, we’re in it for the next generation – our children and grandchildren.”