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Despair for Australian farmers as drought kills livestock

Tamworth, Australia

IN BETTER times, the dam on farmer Kevin Tongue's property is three metres deep with water. It's now been empty for three months.

The worst drought in living memory is sweeping through Australia's east, the country's main food bowl, decimating wheat and barley crops and leaving grazing land parched.

Mr Tongue, his wife and two sons hand-feed their 300 breeding cows and 1,300 sheep with grain and fodder bought and transported from other parts of the country as drought-hit local supplies run out.

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"It's been a huge financial effect on everyone. Not just buying hay and things like that, but you know, we've got no winter crop and that's probably a third of our income that we won't have," Mr Tongue told Reuters on his farm near the town of Tamworth about 300 kilometres inland from Sydney in the eastern state of New South Wales (NSW).

Forecasters have dramatically cut anticipated wheat yields for the country's most important crop three months before the harvest.

Glencore Agriculture has forecast a wheat crop in NSW of just 2.4 million tonnes, less than a third of the average annual yield of 7.4 million tonnes.

Mr Tongue said the despair in the farming community was palpable.

"When you have some strange woman come up crying on your shoulder, saying, 'I can't find hay, I can't find grain, what am I going to do?' I'm just not in a position to say I can help you but, yeah, it is very hard."

The east coast has received some recent sporadic rain, though it has not been enough to save crops. A sustained break of the "big dry" is required to enable grazing to resume.

NSW is the country's most-populous state and produces a quarter of Australia's agriculture by value. The state government has officially declared a drought.

On Te-Angie, north-east of Tamworth, Richard Ogilvie said he had lost in excess of A$40,000 (S$39,945) in income on his Hereford cattle station as grazing pastures turned to dust and feed costs soared.

This will lead to a loss of about A$200,000 longer term due to the reduction in breeding cattle, he said.

Many farmers, including Mr Ogilvie, have been forced to shoot starving cattle, which he said was putting a big strain on the family.

"The ongoing thing is not to dwell and get down too much with the ongoing days of dragging cattle out of dams and shooting the ones that can't get up," he said.

Australia's federal government and the NSW state government have pledged several billions dollars in aid for drought-afflicted farmers.

Australia recorded its fifth-driest July on record last month. For NSW, the January-to-July period was the driest since 1965 and marked seven consecutive months of below-average rainfall for the state. REUTERS