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Tips and tools for fire recovery

05 February 2016

The impact of bushfires has been felt in livestock production areas across Australia this summer, leaving many producers without feed, infrastructure and, in some cases, livestock.

With the immediate fire recovery period behind, the next steps are to manage surviving stock, return burnt pastures to productivity and replace fencing and water infrastructure.

Daniel Schuppan is involved with fire-affected producers in South Australia's lower north where 80,000ha was burnt in November 2015,  through his roles as an Animal Production Specialist with Landmark (based at Jamestown, SA), a Lifetime Ewe Management course deliverer, and as part of the Mid North Young Guns networking and development group.

He said the fire impacted livestock producers in different ways: some lost all their stock and pastures, stubbles, stored grain and hay, while other producers lost pastures but saved some animals.

Although recovery strategies are determined by the severity of impact and the land type (arable, non-arable, plains or hills), Daniel said there were broad principles which apply in managing livestock and rebuilding pastures after fire. They are:

1. Give pastures time

Annual pastures: Cereals can be dry-sown for early feed, but medic and sub-clover pastures will need the autumn break to rejuvenate. Defer grazing until plants are established to avoid damaging young plants, and remove stock in spring to allow seed set to build the seed bank.

Improved perennial pastures: Follow best practice grazing management to prevent over grazing and reducing plant density.

Native grasslands: Rest for 12 months if possible to allow for full recovery, or just lightly graze in winter and remove stock to allow seed set in spring and rest in summer. Set ground cover and dry matter/hectare targets and stick to them. Have an ‘exit’ strategy for a dry spring, such as selling or agisting stock.

Some paddocks might need a year or two to return to full productivity. This may be a challenge if cash flow is required but pastures need to be fully rested for long-term production. If only part of a paddock was burnt, temporary electric fencing is an option to prevent stock grazing this area until there is adequate ground cover.

2. Budget feed

  • If you haven’t already, now is the time to develop a feed budget to take stock of what feed you have and what you need. Daniel suggests producers in southern Australia plan for the worst and hope for the best by budgeting feed for a late break (May/June) and managing stock numbers accordingly. An earlier seasonal break April will be a bonus. A good starting point is MLA's Feed Demand Calculator.
  • feed budget allows producers to assess animal energy/protein requirements (based on class/pregnancy status) and feed availability (pasture, hay and grain). Test the feed quality (especially of bought or donated hay and grain) for a more accurate assessment.
  • The difference between available feed and animal requirements can be bridged by reducing the stocking rate (sell or agist) or using supplementary feeding or confinement feeding. Weigh up the cost-effectiveness and labour requirements of each strategy. For example, confinement feeding can cost around $1.90-2.30/head/week for a ewe in the late stages of pregnancy, or $1.30/head/week for dry sheep.

Another consideration is lambing or calving in large confinement yards.

3. Manage agisted stock

While the focus will be on rebuilding the farm, it’s important to still manage stock on agistment. This includes monitoring body condition to ensure stock do not go backwards and regularly assessing feed availability. Daniel also suggests scanning ewes, heifers and cows, as stress can impact pregnancy rates and will impact feed budgets and management for the year ahead.

4. Assess your enterprise

Fire can create a ‘blank slate’ and provide the opportunity to reassess and refocus your enterprise. It is a good time to consider factors such as:

  • repositioning fences and watering points
  • adding laneways or fencing to land type
  • the most suitable fencing material for re-fencing
  • the direction of your livestock enterprise (is this a chance to change species, breed or market?)
  • changing the time of shearing/lambing to improve efficiency.

5. Manage biosecurity

Many producers rely on donated hay and grain or agistment until pastures return to full production. Some basic biosecurity measures include:

  • Shear returned (or new) stock and run them in a small paddock for around two weeks minimise the risk of introducing weeds.
  • Shear, treat for lice and isolate new/returned sheep to prevent the spread of lice.
  • Feed donated hay in a small paddock to reduce the spread of weed seed.
  • Practice quarantine drenching to prevent introducing parasites.

More information: Daniel Schuppan E: