Rising from the ashes

29 November 2019

Have you ever wished you could start with a clean slate and design your paddock layout, yards and pastures from scratch?

For Troy and Nette Fischer, extreme circumstances led to a fresh start.

In November 2015, a fire engulfed 80,000ha in SA, including the Fischers’ property, where it destroyed 650 White Suffolk stud sheep as well as 1,000 rolls of hay, sheds, machinery and 35km of fencing.

The Fischers’ resilience, goal setting and careful decision making, along with support from the community, ensured a return to productivity in under two years and paved the way for genetic gain.

Immediate response

In the days after the fire, Troy, Nette and Troy’s parents Brian and Rhonda turned their immediate focus to managing the surviving 550 ewe and ram lambs.

“We had so many questions: where to run these lambs, how to replace the breeding ewes, how to use all the offers of help, would our insurance come good and where to start? It was overwhelming,” Troy said.

A critical step was to divide up key roles.

Troy focused on rebuilding the stud flock, while Nette handled the resources required for the rebuild; most importantly, procurement of key infrastructure, insurance and financial management. Brian focused on livestock transport and fences while Rhonda looked after and fed helpers.

Agistment was found within five days at a nearby stud breeder’s farm, which ensured their ovine Johne’s disease MN3 status wasn’t compromised.

The flock rebuild focused on three main goals:

  • conducting the annual stud ram sale in September 2016
  • ensuring enough lambs were dropped in 2016 to have a ram sale in 2017
  • continuing genetic improvement.

Troy asked six White Suffolk stud owners to contribute elite breeding ewes to an embryo transfer program. All agreed and Troy selected 20 ewes, which produced 300 embryos. Another stud breeder loaned 70 stud ewes to obtain a drop of lambs. The Fischer family also purchased breeding ewes.

With sheep coming in from nine properties across Australia, the Fischers were conscious of not introducing new diseases or weeds.

Sheep were drenched and vaccinated on entry into a confinement feeding yard and drenched again before being moved out to paddocks.

Donated hay was only fed in the yard to reduce risk of weed invasion.

Post-disaster management

Pregnant ewes were managed according to Lifetime Ewe principles. They received hay up to the late stages of pregnancy, when they were also fed supplementary grain, and were moved out to pasture just before lambing.

The Fischers sought advice from professionals and engaged a consultant to help them with whole-farm planning and decision-making.

“The fire gave us a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-evaluate how the farm was set up. We also had a lot of decisions to make, down to what type of fencing we would erect, farm layout and key machinery purchases,” Troy said.

“It was really important to have someone with an independent view to look at our business and provide advice on which direction to head and where to focus our limited financial and labour resources.”

The Fischers widened all gateways to a standard 10m to ensure easy machinery access and built a containment yard and state-of-the-art sheep yards to improve labour efficiency and make sheep work more enjoyable.

Four years on, the Fischers have expanded their flock by 50% to now sell more than 300 rams a year (and plan to grow this further) and have seen their rate of genetic gain increase.

They doubled the area of crop by leasing land and upgraded seeding and harvest equipment for improved labour efficiency and timeliness of sowing.

TOP TIPS FOR DISASTER RECOVERY

  • View disasters as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change.
  • Seek expert advice to assist with decision making.
  • Accept offers of help, especially from organisations such as BlazeAid.
  • Divide the workload and develop appropriate time frames for rebuilding tasks.
  • Look after each other, exercise tolerance and take time off for physical and mental health.
  • Check the fine print in your insurance policy – you might be covered for more than you realise.
  • Make calculated decisions; don’t rush into them.
  • Look out for members of your community who are struggling.
  • When your business is back to some sort of normality and you can have some time off, celebrate your achievements and have a holiday.

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