We’ve recently returned from a fabulous trip to Australia, but before we left I had a day’s shooting in the rain with a friend who farms in South Yorkshire and four weeks ago he was struggling to lift potatoes – by the looks of the news in the last few days, that won’t have improved.

Driving through Perthshire and Angus just before we left, the scene looked similar. Fields not drilled, potatoes and other vegetables still to lift and water lying everywhere. Pretty grim, really.

Contrast that to what I experienced at first hand in the last three weeks. The drought in New South Wales and parts of Queensland is now starting to break records for all the wrong reasons. Hundreds, probably thousands, of miles of dust where grass and crops should be growing in late spring bear testament to what is becoming an apocalyptic scene.

For a day between November 11 and November 12, for the first time since records began, no rain fell anywhere in Australia. In a country bigger than Europe, that is absolutely extraordinary.

The fire season hasn’t officially begun yet, but in the second week of November, as bush fires threatened Sydney, believe it or not, more than 1,000,000ha – yes, 1m – were burnt during that week in New South Wales alone. That takes no account of Queensland or any other part of Australia overcome with drought.

Water and the rights to extract and consume water for agriculture has become a traded commodity in Australia. Inevitably, private equity investors and others have seen an opportunity to exploit this commodity and there are accusations flying around right now that their involvement is forcing up the price.

I’ve no way of knowing if that is true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me because with every disaster comes an opportunity and these types of investors can sniff out a financial opportunity from a distance. That aside, the scarcity of water is frightening.

There was an auction of water when I was there when record prices were paid by fruit farmers and others desperate to save their businesses. The five-year average for buying water is Au$135 per megalitre (a megalitre is 1000 litres, so 13.5c per litre).

Some of the water hit a record of Au$970 per megalitre – a staggering 97c per litre. For reference, that’s about 50p/litre for extracted water for irrigation. It’s unbelievable.

One almond and fruit farmer who was interviewed said and I quote: “I’ll go bankrupt without water and I may well go bankrupt with water, even if I have produce to sell, but at least I have a chance.” Can you imagine being in that position? It’s one thing delaying drilling wheat, quite another making a decision like this guy and hundreds of others like him.

We travelled from Sydney up to Port Stephens and then inland to the north end of the Hunter Valley, in NSW, near a town called Merriwa. Apart from the dust, the other problem was smoke from the bushfires burning near Port Macquarie about another 150 miles north. Day became night as this smoke drifted south even reaching as far as Sydney.

We visited an Aberdeen-Angus pedigree breeder in the middle of this dust bowl. All around were the remnants of wheat and canola crops that had been grazed not harvested. First because animals were starving and second there wasn’t enough crop to harvest.

This was an area not normally prone to drought, getting around 24 inches of rain in a normal year. But since March, 2017, nothing, literally nothing, making it the worst drought in 147 years. Wheat that should have yielded two tonnes/acre was dead.

In the midst of this, I saw the most expensive yearling Angus bull (Au$50,000) grazing – I use the term loosely – a 200-acre paddock with no supplementary feeding. Next door, were 30 yearling Angus bulls that were shiny and well fleshed, again with no supplementary feeding, just grazing the remnants of some withered Lucerne.

Then we saw 50 spring (this is their spring) calving Angus cows weighing no more than 600kg with two to three-month-old calves at foot. Many were in poor condition, some with no hair on their legs and abnormal udders having been burnt trying to escape a bush fire. The calves were struggling so were getting creep feeding. They were about to be weaned at 100/150kg maximum to save the mothers.

But the guy was confident most of the cows were bulled, this group with NZ genetics and would hopefully mostly be in calf. I couldn’t help but admire his optimism!

Hay, if you could get it, had gone from Au$300/tonne earlier this year to Au$600/tonne. The problem now is there is no spare hay in NSW so it’s having to come from Victoria or South Australia, so add £100/tonne haulage. Hay at £400/tonne delivered was too expensive so he had put in place other plans to survive.

Half the spring calving herd had been sold to a farmer in Victoria with grass, the idea being that he bought the calves back next year if the rains came, so preserving precious blood lines.

For the last few years, this emerging breeder using the Trio prefix has been selling about 100 bulls a year at an on-farm sale, averaging around Au$9000. This year that number will be halved and the average had been halved as well. No wonder, beef cow numbers in Australia are now at an 25-year low.

Apart from this being hugely interesting, what did I take from all this? Firstly, the positivity and optimism of many (not all) of these farmers is extraordinary. They expect adversity, maybe not like this, but they expect it and plan accordingly.

The ‘aye been’ mentality doesn’t exist. They are progressive, innovative and nimble on their feet. Secondly, their cattle are bred from the best genetics the USA, NZ and Australia can offer. They aren’t interested in looks , they are interested in performance and the figures and evidence that underpin performance.

If you get it wrong in an environment like that, you go hungry like your cattle, literally. So anything they can do to manage risk, they do it as the risks are so extreme. In that regard, smaller cattle that can live on almost nothing, whose offspring are easily fleshed, are the order of the day. What a lesson that is for us in Scotland!

Thirdly, they are concentrating on the eating experience of their beef. Retailers and restaurants in Australia are loyal to ‘local’ produce – probably not surprising given where Australia is. However, farmers are much more connected to their customers, despite the remoteness of where they farm. They don’t produce beef to suit themselves, they produce it to satisfy their customers – taste and texture really matter.

Despite their extreme problems, I came home inspired and enthused about our own future in the beef sector in Scotland. It may be difficult, in fact it is, but, hey, visit Queensland or NSW and you’ll redefine difficult. We need to change. We need to take ownership of our industry and more importantly our brand, to face the future with our glass half full, not half empty. For those with the right mindset we can and we will survive and succeed.