ON EITHER bank of the Murray River dairy farmers are downsizing their herds or getting out of the game altogether as the monthly milk cheque fails to match their outgoing costs.
Fodder prices are a challenge, but it is water prices that farmers say have forced them to employ drastic measures and rethinks of their business models.
Blighty, NSW, dairy farmer Lachlan Marshall has begun a partial dispersal of his herd, reducing milkers from 900 to 600.
He says his move is a direct result of repeated seasons of zero water allocations.
"This is 100-per-cent related to water - it's about the cost of feeding cows," he said
"We could irrigate 2000 acres (810 hectares) but it's just dry country at the moment."
NSW Murray River irrigators are languishing because of zero water allocations and Mr Marshall said reducing numbers was one way to stay in business.
"The problem is cows aren't worth anything at the moment, we sold 40 at auction the other day and hope to sell the rest privately, they're young, healthy and productive, so we can't just send them to slaughter," he said.
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His partial dispersal remains tactical, however, as he removes any A1-protein producing cows from his herd.
Mr Marshall is less than enthusiastic about the appointment of a NSW dairy commissioner, as the coalition makes good on one of its election promises.
"A lot of people have said a lot of things, there have been speeches made and nothing has happened, no-one has delivered anything," he said.
"Littleproud says the Murray Darling Basin Plan has delivered certainty - the only certainty is we're stuffed under his leadership," he said.
"I've lost two neighbours in the past month, complete herd dispersals."
One of those neighbours is Andy Lostroh, who sold his British Friesian herd on August 23 at the Shepparton Selling Complex in Victoria.
Mr Lostroh said his decision was "all to do with water".
"We're not getting any rain and we're not getting any water out of the system, even with milk prices that have never been as good we just can't get the numbers to work," he said.
"We couldn't find a justification to keep doing it."
Mr Lostroh said after the election he had been full of hope, but "nothing has changed".
It's ironic that the Lostroh Partnership relocated to the NSW Riverina from Queensland in 1983 in search of water, figuring the permanency of the Murray River supply would stabilise the odds for success of its dairy operation.
The 1980s were halcyon days for the dairy industry - "the water bill came at the end of the year and you just paid it.
"When they separated land and water everything changed," he said.
"When we first started, our budget had no line for purchasing water, now it's the biggest line."
Mr Lostroh said the property Shamrock Vale had a deep bore, and he could buy temporary groundwater allocations.
"But there's people in Melbourne who have simply invested in groundwater, they're never going to use it," ge said.
The family wants to keep farming and in the immediate future will cut hay off the property.
"That will give us some time to consider what to do next," he said.
Across the river and downstream at Tongala, Vic, John Brien has been milking and raising beef cattle on Cornelia Creek for 45 years and when you ask him how much longer he'll be at it he says, "ask the bank".
He said in October 2018 he wrote to Victorian Water Minister Lisa Neville warning of a catastrophe for dairy farming in the state's north.
A year on and he says what has played out has been catastrophic.
Hundreds of dairy farms have shut down in the past few years and Mr Brien believes carryover water held for the environment and by water traders is the cause.
"There was 788,000 megalitres of high reliability water bought for the environment from a total Victorian pool of 1.6 million megalitres," he said.
"That's water that was once available to farmers, you could feed 200,000 cows with that water.
"But the problem is in a wet year, traders aren't inclined to sell and the environment doesn't need it because it's raining and those allocations and be carried over 100 per cent,.
"Then at the next allocation, they're effectively stealing room in the storages.
"Then they've got another 788,000 megalitres, that's another 200,000 cows that aren't being fed."
Not farm from Cornelia Downs, Peter Tomkins is doing it hard on Clover-Flat.
His wife Judi Pay left earlier in the year and while she still does the business accounting, she couldn't handle the constant worry and is resting on Phillip Island in the state's south.
Mr Tomkins said what was happening now would probably be the death knell for the Goulburn Valley.
"The water situation is ruining the whole community, the farm services, the motor bike shops, thew entire community is suffering," he said.
Berrigan Shire Mayor Matt Hannan knows the importance farmers play in the local government area over which he presides, it takes in NSW centres of Berrigan, Finley, Tocumwal and Barooga.
"There's a lot of people who need rain within the next week," he said.
"When the farmers are doing it hard they bunker down and only spend on essentials, and who can blame them, but you see the slowdown in retail, in hospitality."
Nick Taylor, general manager at Daviesway/Dasco, a company that supplies plant and chemicals for the dairy industry across Australia, knows well the circumstances of northern Victoria and southern NSW.
"It's tough and it doesn't look good," is his quick assessment.
"Farmers just aren't spending on capital equipment, they're keeping their existing equipment working," he said.
Mr Taylor said as northern Victorian and southern NSW dairy farmers struggled for a way through their current crisis, they might have to consider different styles of dairy farming.
He said Australia and New Zealand were probably among the last countries pasture feeding dairy cows.
"A lot of other countries have moved to barn-style dairy farming, where the cows are kept in barns and the property used to grow crops and the food is brought to the cows," he said.
"We ran a conference on that in March, in Echuca, and there was a lot of interest."
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