Managed well, the recovery after a bushfire provides an opportunity to improve pastures and farm layout. That is the message from Bryan Dickson, a dairy farmer whose three farms were burnt out in the St Patrick's Day 2018 fires in Western Victoria, and from John Webb Ware, a senior consultant with the University of Melbourne's MacKinnon Project, who has helped many farmers in the aftermath of bushfires.
Mr Dickson has two dairy farms at Terang, Vic, and Glenfyne, Vic, and an outblock near Cobden, Vic. At Terang, he lost 485 hectares of pasture, 39 kilometres of fencing, 500 round bales of hay and a hay shed and pump sheds. At Glenfyne, 60ha of pasture, about 8km of boundary and internal fencing and 150 round bales of wrapped silage were burnt.
His production was affected by the loss of power and the lack of access. At Glenfyne, the cell count grew to more than 2 million. Milk had to be dumped and it took a couple of weeks to get the cell count down to a normal 40,000-50,000.
The 97ha outblock near Cobden, grazing 140 heifers, was completely burnt and the heifers lost their hair. They were sent to agistment out of the region.
More than 60km of fences was burnt and needed replacing across the farms.
"It took six months to re-fence most of the properties and 12 months in total," Mr Dickson said.
"Blaze Aid was very, very good. They pulled fences down and put wires up and insulators and staples. Blaze Aid saved us a lot of work. For three weeks straight, I had five to six people volunteering.
"My workers banged in the posts. We own a post rammer and I borrowed a post rammer and we had both working every day, 60 hours a week, for six to seven months. That was a lot of pressure on my staff.
"People were always fussing around me, trying to make sure I was okay, but I really felt for those guys."
The labour component of recovery was intensive. Fodder was fed out daily on both farms.
"We were lucky in that my agronomy consultant was out on the farms the next day and he went away and did a budget on what we needed for fodder," Mr Dickson said.
"The insurance company took three days to pay for the hay and silage we'd lost. I was able to buy that replacement within a week."
Hay was donated by his bank, by hay and grain growers who he regularly dealt with, and some community groups.
He had a 10ha maize crop and a 10ha summer crop still standing.
"That's what saved me and my cows. It was two green crops in a long skinny line with the laneway going through it," Mr Dickson said.
"I was trying to get the 900 cows in the milking herd back to the dairy onto the concrete. The fire was coming towards us quicker than we could get away from it.
"We came in behind the maize and the fire stopped and had to go around it. We were sheltering in the laneway which went between the brassica crop and the maize crop."
Mr Dickson is part of a privately managed focus farm group and one week after the fire, all members attended a farm walk on his place at Terang.
"It was discussed that instead of waiting to see if the pasture was alive, we would do a full re-sow on everything that was burnt," Mr Dickson said.
All the flat country was direct drilled immediately with perennial ryegrass and clover and a helicopter was used in May to broadcast perennial ryegrass seed across Glenfyne's 32ha of steep hill country.
Insurance paid for the pasture renovations and fencing.
"Once spring came, I probably had the best pasture in the district, because I re-sowed the entire farm," Mr Dickson said.
The extra labour component of re-fencing and feeding fodder daily meant the wage bill was underestimated; wages paid were 20 per cent more than estimated.
"We blew our wages bill by about $80,000. We got a $15,000 fine because we underestimated our wages budget for the year," Mr Dickson said.
"It annoyed me but the insurance company paid it. The assessor looked at our wage bill, which was where it should be the day before the fire; they paid the extra wage bill and the fine."
Focus on key areas
John Webb Ware has advised many clients about managing their recovery back into business after bushfires, along with his own experience on his fire-affected farm in 2014.
"The two key items to focus on are pastures and livestock," Mr Webb Ware said.
"Take out the initial crisis management of working with livestock. If you can, take some of the cattle off the farm, send dry cows and heifers on agistment, if that's available.
"Sit down and do your budgets and work out if you can make opportunistic decisions. One farm lost most of their cows in a fire in 2014 and they actually purchased most of their stock requirements within a month of the fire because it was quite cheap to buy new stock, rather than wait."
He advises securing an area to set up a feedlot for the remaining cattle. This will obviously assist with biosecurity as well - whether it is looking after the health of the herd, managing diseases and burns or smoke inhalation, transitioning new cows into the herd, or controlling potential weed invasions from donated and bought-in feed.
"If you've got areas on the farm that haven't been burnt, obviously you can graze those areas," Mr Webb Ware said.
"It's much more environmentally valuable, a lot more labour efficient and better for the animals for them to be in a restricted area. But graze the cattle where you do have pastures as if you are in a sudden drought situation.
"So your next step around decision making is to assess what feed costs will be for your various livestock and how long you are likely to feed for.
"You know how much your cows are going to need as feed. What you don't know is how long you'll be feeding for.
"Calculate best and worst-case scenarios. You're better off being in for the long haul rather than making decisions on the run.
"You're also involved in getting areas re-fenced. Plan your strategy for the next three years."
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He advises caution about donated fodder, as well as bought-in hay and silage, again applying the principles of drought-feeding and feed-lotting.
"It's better to feed that livestock in a restricted area, for potential biosecurity issues, especially weed management," Mr Webb Ware said.
"It's also a good idea to restrict your cattle's access to contaminated areas, so they have access to healthy water supplies.
"Your next decision making step is what feed costs will be and how long are you likely to feed for?"
Because of the need for re-fencing and re-building other assets, Mr Webb Ware said the post-fire period was often an opportunity for farmers to redesign their paddock rotations and laneways and to think about labour efficiencies and livestock movement. He recommends caution and taking time to make decisions.
"Often you can put up plenty of temporary electric fencing in the short term. You're already under financial duress, and infrastructure needs to be rebuilt properly over time," he said.
"Think long term. I know producers who use this as an opportunity to think outside the square."
Pasture recovery from fire will vary, depending on the severity and length of the burn, the type of pasture species affected and soils.
"If you rank in respect of the fire, your native species are the most resilient, then phalaris and cocksfoot," Mr Webb Ware said.
"Strawberry clover is pretty resilient, white clover intermediate. If you've had a cool burn, white clover can return.
"A lot of subterranean clover survives pretty well, but with a really hot burn there will be some impact.
"Probably the weakest is ryegrass and any annual species.
"All pastures as they're germinating will be pretty exposed in the landscape during false weather breaks, because of the impact of fires.
"Research at Hamilton (Vic) has shown cool burn survival was 80-plus per cent for perennial pastures; phalaris survival was very high even after a hot burn. There was more than 70pc loss of ryegrass plants after a hot burn."
He said recently grazed pastures were likely to recover quicker and regenerate better. Pastures in heavy soils were likely to recover better than grasses grown in sandy soils.
"Nutrient loss after fires is pretty low. Probably the bigger loss is soil erosion in any rain event after fire," Mr Webb Ware said.
"You will get more nitrogen loss, there'll be nitrogen deficiency after a fire. If you put on superphosphate before the fire, it will probably still be there in the soil."
Mr Webb Ware recommends monitoring pastures in the immediate weeks after the fire and initiating a watering exercise to gauge the impact and effect of the fire.
"From a forward planning point of view, what you can do is heavily water some square metre plots. Soak them and keep these areas moist for at least a couple of weeks, so you can make an assessment of what is coming back," he said.
"Variability for perennial pasture survival has been 40-90pc, which is why I recommend that watering exercise, rather than make hasty decisions about resowing."
But bare ground also means weed control comes to the fore during pasture recovery. The same watering exercise will indicate the weeds likely to dominate.
This will also affect carrying capacity. In western Victoria, research was carried out into the effect of a late summer fire on the carrying capacity of improved perennial pasture with moderate fertility.
"Winter carrying capacity was 20-40pc of normal (June was 20pc), September was 60pc and November showed 70pc of normal. It took 12 months to two years to get back into normal carrying capacity for perennial pasture. People with ryegrass could take longer," Mr Webb Ware said.
"You will have some areas which quite clearly you have to sow early to get annuals up and going. With pastures thinned out, oversow and go hard on the nitrogen input.
"Focus on providing extra feed for this year. It might be worth opportunistically putting a fodder crop in so you have a quick feed source, increase dry matter in the soil and potentially increase nutrients. And be prepared to help hydrophobic soils with organic matter."
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