Friday, December 8, 2023

Rain restores fire-damaged farms

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As Gordon and Janet Nicholas watched dozens of kangaroos, wallabies and deer sprint out of the flaming bush beside their dairy farm on January 4 they knew they might soon be following as scorching flames leapt across the road and onto the farm’s dry pastures.
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Only six weeks later that scary apocalyptic image is hard to imagine as the north eastern Victoria pasture country recovers from the devastating New Year bush fires. 

Calves contentedly graze the ryegrass pastures the wild life fled over such a short time ago and the front lawn is lush and green. The couple are talking optimistically about a promising season ahead on the property that is only a short walk from the New South Wales border. 

The slightly surreal reminder of the fires is the hundreds of hectares of scorched brown bush encircling farms.

“I knew things were getting serious when the fire we had heard rather than seen a day before was visible and the wildlife were making a run for it,” Gordon said. 

“Then trees around the house just combusted and a huge fireball came hurtling out of the bush, landing on our tubed silage and setting it alight.”

The United Dairy Farmers of Victoria council member and head of the local fire brigade had already packed off his daughter and daughter-in-law further down the valley, leaving him, Janet and two sons to fight off the flames.

By January 4 the fire, fanned by 50kmh winds, had shifted further in one night than in three days. 

They milked their 580-cow herd early that afternoon and put the cows on the dairy shed yard, cooled by sprinklers. 

As the fire swept across the pastures their 90 grazing steers were released as fences burned. 

Many were not so lucky. News reports from the region include accounts of stock piling up in frenzied masses, unable to get out as flames advanced on them.

The Nicolas’s replacement heifers on the family run-off half an hour away were among those victims.

More than 80 of the 110 heifers were killed or had to be put down, a task Gordon could not get his son Evan to do after he spent years rearing high-quality young stock. Thirty animals are back home recovering.

Insurance covers total stock value rather than per head.

“So we may end up a bit short there.” 

The family lost a hay shed, 800 tonnes of drymatter supplement, the heifers and some assorted plant and machinery in a blaze that could have taken even more.

Fence damage has included strainer posts and gates, some replaced by BlazeAid volunteers.

The family home was saved in part thanks to the lush green lawn they deliberately maintain as a border and heat absorbed by a tough old gum tree nearby. 

Stuffing nappies into the water-filled spouting is one of many tricks locals like the Nicholases use to keep the flames at bay.

“We have been very fortunate really. We have not had much feed from the Victorian Federated Farmers fodder drive but have accepted some private donations, all up about 10 semi-trailers’ worth. We have also bought a lot in ourselves.”

His feed demand equates to about one semi worth a day while the pastures recover.

“We have seen the perennial pastures come back very well and that has been helped by the good rain we have enjoyed since the fires.

“The annuals have not performed as well but crops like lucerne and chicory are looking healthy.”

The region gets 1200mm rain a year but has enjoyed summer figures that would be the envy of most North Island farmers now. 

An early 23mm snuffed out the last of the flames over two days with a further 40mm falling through to early February.

“We have been lucky in that the rain fell over time, unlike what some farms have experienced, washing away soil when it fell.”

Ironically, there are also farms in Victoria and New South Wales struggling to get water despite the rain. 

Normally clear rivers and dams have turned chocolate brown with ash, making pumping stock water almost impossible.

But it’s also been some heroic work by Gordon and his neighbours to save the 14 dairy farms in the valley. 

Gordon recalls lurching down a ridge on his farm in the four-wheel-drive fire truck, blinded by smoke and thinking it could be a good time to get out. 

Turning the truck around he was barely able to outrun the flames chasing him.

The Nicholas family displays typical Australian resilience and good humour to some tough times. Gordon attributes that in part to having enjoyed some consecutive good seasons, helping put more feed in store than they had enjoyed for almost 20 years.

“And while we have debt we also have good equity and cashflow. If it had been poor prices, low feed and high debt this would have been harder to deal with. 

“It is disappointing to lose 80 high-genetic heifers but it is no good moping about it. We’ll just have to milk some of those old girls a bit longer.”

It’s been a full-on six weeks for Nicholas, who admits to needing the occasional sit-down in the shade some days just to catch a break.

“But we are feeling very optimistic. If things keep kicking along like this we are setting up for a good winter.”

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