Prolonged drought in eastern Australia has forced the price of hay up threefold, leaving livestock farmers facing huge bills to feed their cattle and sheep.
In some parts of New South Wales, farmers are shipping in hay from hundreds of kilometres away, even from Western Australia, just to get their livestock some feed.
However, one farmer is using a different approach to keep his cattle nourished by feeding them watermelons as a supplement.
After reducing his herd to 100, Michael Sweeney who farms in the Victorian high country, is taking in watermelons to feed his cattle. Drought conditions forced Sweeney to destock because he didn’t have enough feed to go around.
Although he still has pasture land and a supply of hay, Sweeney decided to top up the ration with watermelons as a supplement.
The farmer has reported his cattle are, albeit with a slow start, eating the watermelons, rind and all. “They were sort of looking at it, going, where’s me hay? As most new things, they took a few days to get used to it and get into it.
“One mob was pretty much eating the red fruit and left a lot of the rinds, where another mob was eating quite a bit of both.”
When it comes to costs, Sweeney says the melons are about a quarter of the price of alternative feed options, taking the haulage into account too.
“They’re high in sugar and some vitamins, so with the hay we’re feeding them it might help a bit,” he said.
A transport company in Victoria owned by Kat Gration offered Sweeney the melons free of charge if he paid the shipping charges.
Gration said her transport business has been extremely busy delivering hay across areas affected by the dry conditions where farmers have been hand feeding, and some producers have been crippled by the cost.
“We’re struggling to transport the amount of loads of hay and we’ve had to put on 13 extra subcontractors to keep up with the demand,” she said.
Gration decided to purchase watermelons in bulk and donate them as a free feed alternative.
“I had a fair bit of interest from New South Wales drought-affected areas for feeding their cattle, but even with the melons being free, the overall long-distance cost in terms of cartage was still out of their budget, for those that were really struggling,” she added.
Although there is no evidence watermelons could affect the health of cattle, there is very little nutritional value in them for livestock compared to hay.
However, experts did add that the animals should not be fed watermelons that were not for human consumption because those may have been sprayed with chemicals that could cause problems for the animals and passed on to humans if they were being slaughtered for meat.