Farmers look to the skies as crops reach critical point
A FLOCK of pelicans circling over Cameron Saal's water-sapped grain crops in Brookstead raised faint hopes of an omen that rain might be on the way.
More likely the large group of birds, a rare sight in the skies above his dry-land property, were headed east towards the coast to escape the moisture-draining heat that has shrouded much of inland Queensland.
It is also a temporary solution many farmers across the region are currently taking, Mr Saal included.
He and his family plan to set off for the Sunshine Coast for a reprieve from the waiting game, hoping the situation has improved by the time they return.
Circumstances are not entirely grim.
A few days of lasting rainfall could easily turn the current state of affairs around and prevent crops from withering for at least another month.
Forecasts of possible storms tomorrow through to Tuesday have raised a glimmer of hope among the Darling Downs agricultural community.
Unfortunately, recent downpours have proved scattered and short-lasting and have failed to provide the kind of soaking needed to properly satisfy thirsty root systems.
The effect of the patchy drenching can be seen in Mr Saal's own sorghum where rows of relatively healthy crops are visibly separated by a matter of metres from sub-par and thinning plants.
Mr Saal described the worst of the sorghum as "pineapply" - its dry leaves curling into sharpened spikes to protect itself from the dry heat.
His cotton has already started to flower months before the typical fruit-bearing period.
Should a downpour arrive capable of penetrating the hard earth three inches below the surface, they will drop their flowers and resume the growing process.
It is not ideal but the crops are hanging on.
"All we need is some steady rain to soak in and get things started again," Mr Saal said.
"The heavy storms we've had have only really managed to penetrate the top two inches of the soil."
Mr Saal's predicament is paralleled across much of the Darling Downs.
AgForce Grains president Wayne Newton said narrow storm patterns meant some growers expected reasonable yields while their neighbours had all but resigned to a meagre return.
"Most sorghum is usually planted around October, but only a very small area was planted then because it was so dry," he said.
"Those crops are doing it tough at the moment.
"There has been spasmodic planting all the way through to the past couple of weeks, and there are still people planting right now."
Cattle producers are also feeling the pressure, with smaller cropping levels driving up feed grain prices.
"We would usually see a significant sorghum harvest in February, but that's not going to happen this year," Mr Newton said.
"A lot wasn't planted, and those that were are suffering."
Farmers have not given up hope and, with any luck, those pelicans soaring over Brookstead yesterday were merely settling in for a downpour.