As images of dazed dairy cattle wandering state roads seeking food and water filter out an industry leader there says the implications for the industry’s long-term future are dire.
“Through the southern NSW region there are about two million cows and 8m sheep and a high proportion of those cows are dairy.
“Down on the south NSW coast they were trying to maintain herd sizes as they had enjoyed some coastal rain down to Bega and Cobargo,” industry group Dairy Connect chief executive Shaughn Morgan said.
But he fears the fires after some tough seasons will push some farmers to the brink, both mentally and financially.
The fires also brought a tragic personal blow for many in the NSW dairy community after the deaths Patrick and Robert Salway in Cobargo, respected father and son dairy farmers who perished protecting their family home.
The situation through southern NSW remains very fluid as fires are far from out.
“In many areas pastures have been completely burnt out, we have roads closed and no electricity for milking.
“One of our members was not able to milk his herd for 60 hours so mastitis will be an issue and milk tankers are not able to access many areas.”
Diminished water supplies and damaged water pipes are also a major problem for farmers wanting to water surviving stock.
The Bega region is home to the Bega cheese brand and farmers also supply French dairy processor Lactalis Australia.
ABC Rural is reporting apocalyptic scenes through the region with stock literally exploding from the heat, cows with burnt teats unable to nurse calves and a dire shortage of feed and water for surviving animals.
Some early estimates have put cattle losses possibly as high as 450,000 throughout all affected areas.
Any loss in dairy cow numbers exacerbates Australia’s ever-tightening milk supply.
Since 2016 there has been a slide in Australian dairy cow numbers. The herd was already expected to be 1.44m this year, down 10% on 2010-11.
Total production was down 9% for the 2017-18 year as farmers were squeezed by record high water prices and feed costs.
The industry exported 35% of production last year, a decline of 5% in volume on the year before.
“Here in NSW it is a fresh milk market and this will impact on supply, as to what extent it’s hard to know just yet,” Morgan said.
ABC Rural has reported farming leaders calling for supermarkets to raise their prices for milk to help farmers generate enough income to try to recover from drought and fire impact.
Southern NSW has in the past been considered too lush to qualify for government help.
Morgan said the disaster is far from over with the region gearing up for another intense heatwave likely to inflict more losses.
“This will not be going away soon and farmers are still facing the possibility of further stock and infrastructure losses.
“This is a vast tragedy in the making.”