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Bushfire implications for livestock wellbeing

The challenge

The 2019/20 summer bushfires devastated south-eastern Australia and caused the death of tens of thousands of livestock. Although most livestock survived, the extent to which they suffered burn wounds, smoke inhalation or immune fitness impacts is not fully understood.

The bushfires also destroyed pastures used for feed and livestock husbandry infrastructure (fences, yards, sheds), which could lead to potential compromise of biosecurity in the form of introduced pests and weeds.

Further, the consequences of bushfire and potential impacts on carcase characteristics (yield, quality and animal health) at slaughter are unknown.
Overall, the impact on livestock health and red meat processing as a result of exposure to bushfires is not well understood.

What is MLA doing?

Red meat producer levies are being invested in a collaborative research project between Ausvet, University of Sydney and the University of Melbourne, to investigate the impacts of bushfires on the health, welfare and productivity of livestock. The aim is to provide producers with guidelines on how to mitigate the risks and effects of bushfires on livestock and businesses, including post-slaughter impacts on carcase and meat quality.

With support from South East Local Land Services District Veterinarians and private veterinarians in Victoria, researchers will examine the effects of the 2019/20 bushfire season on surviving cattle and sheep, interview red meat producers and develop management strategies for future bushfire events. This will involve:

  • interviewing producers affected by the 2019/20 fire season regarding bushfire risk management, recovery strategies and any successes
  • conducting workshops with veterinarians, producer consultants and fire experts to establish best practice recommendations
  • collecting data and samples (blood, faeces etc.) from livestock that were exposed to, and survived, the bushfires over regions both close and far from fire-affected areas
  • analysing animal data in regards to immune response, reproduction and overall productivity
  • linking cattle and sheep location and proximity to bushfires to the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) and national sheep health monitoring project data sets at abattoirs to determine any lasting impacts on carcase or meat quality
  • examining geospatial data to look at the shapes of farms and paddocks to determine if there are risk factors associated with paddock or farm design
  • developing a paddock fire risk index that can be used on any farm for future management decision-making and reduce the extent of livestock injury
  • studying and recommending post-fire management plans to improve pasture rehabilitation and reduce the risk of introducing pests and weeds.

In order to collect field data and samples, the research team will depend heavily on the goodwill and assistance of district veterinarians from the South East Local Land Services and private veterinarians in Victoria.

The benefits to industry

One of the major outputs of this project will be the development of an evidence-based Livestock Bushfire Preparedness Manual for producers. The manual will create a better understanding of what bushfires do to livestock, and beef and sheep production systems, how to prepare and respond and will be an invaluable tool for producers living in high bushfire areas of Australia.