Bushfires have killed tens of thousands of livestock and laid waste to generations of farming endeavour. It will take years for farmers to rebuild.
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PHOTO: Cattle on a farm at Tintaldra are being buried following the bushfires. (Supplied: Josh Collings)

Weeks after bushfires destroyed farmland across Australia, Kim Winter was still putting down livestock at Tintaldra in north-east Victoria.

Every second day vets would assess the animals, deeming many too unwell to keep or sell — destined for a bullet and being dragged to a mass grave.

“But yeah, we’re Aussies, we just get on with it. You do it, you just get on.”

Covered in ash, dust and breathing in the thick smoke haze, Ms Winter is stoic but fully aware of the task facing farmers.

“It’s more the long haul. It’s the nights where you think: ‘Am I going to be able to afford this? Should I walk away? Can I do this again?’

“That’s going to be hard.”

A century of work

As well as livestock, farming losses include pasture, fodder, machinery and an immeasurable amount of fencing.

In many cases, entire properties have been wiped out.

For Tony Jarvis’s family, more than a century of hard work at Cudgewa has been destroyed.

“Our farming enterprise has been totally decimated by this, the structure of the enterprise and workings of the enterprise that we’ve built up,” Mr Jarvis said.

“Me personally over 40 years, but my father and grandfather before that and great-grandfather before that.”

Of the 600 cattle on the farm, 62 died or were put down immediately after the fires.

Mr Jarvis has decided to keep just 40 of the surviving herd.

“It’s very sad to lose the generationality (sic) of the animals that have been running around this farm, but unfortunately, we’ve got to be hard-hearted because we can’t feed them,” he said.

The cost both financially and physically and mentally of trying to look after that many animals through that amount of time, I thought was beyond me and our family to do that.

It could take months for burnt-out paddocks to regrow, even with a decent amount of rain.

Farmers like Mr Jarvis believe it will take five to 10 years to get back to where they were before the disaster.

“It takes a lot to get through that and to sort of try to figure out what to do first, and what to do straight after that, and after and after and after,” he said.

Rebuilding for a fire future

In the Nariel Valley, the Klippel family had two properties and nearly all of their 600 hectares of farmland destroyed, with 20 kilometres separating the two farms.

“These fires weren’t just little fires, these were fire storms,” Sarah Klippel said.

“We’ve had bushfires around before, we’ve had fires flanking us on both sides on the mountains, no impact at all.

Ten-year-old Will already wants to be a farmer, and his mother said as they rebuild, they needed to prepare their farm for fires like this happening more often.

“If we’re going to be seeing situations like this on a more regular basis, and the data would say that it’s happened here already, it’s looking ahead at how do we stock-proof, how do we fence-proof, how do we make our hays proof of fire?”

Donations of hay and supplies from across the country are helping farmers get through the initial aftermath, but Mrs Klippel is concerned about the long-term recovery.

“My worry is that beyond the charity, which has been fantastic, how do we then go forward?” she said.

“In terms of pasture improvement, we’re probably not looking until spring in terms of having good feed for cattle, so we haven’t really got our head around that.”

Dairies hit hard

For dairy farmers, the bushfire disaster comes after a tough few years in the industry.

Third-generation farmer Craig McKimmie said his Corryong dairy business had just turned the corner since changing suppliers after the collapse of milk processor Murray Goulburn.

“So to have this come along and set us back is devastating,” he said.

“But hopefully, the prices stay good and it gives us an incentive to move forward and to get back to where we were and start making a profit again.”

Mr McKimmie has sold his beef herd and is reducing his dairy herd, with not enough to feed them with.

Despite the losses, he’s not giving up.

“I’ve got two kids that have both indicated that at some stage they’d love to come back and do what I’m doing, so that’s getting me out of bed every day,” he said.

National herd and flock depleted

Corryong stock agent Matthew Cooper spent the weeks after the fires selling his clients’ stock to abattoirs and saleyards.

“I think for some people, that’s probably helped them mentally more, just to the offload their cattle rather than to see them suffer or go backwards with the lack of feed,” he said.

This summer’s bushfires have accelerated the reduction in the size of the national cattle herd and sheep flock.

Nationally, numbers were already down after years of drought and last year’s flood in Queensland’s north-west.

Wagga Wagga saleyard manager Paul Martin said he’d already seen hundred of animals from fire-affected regions through the yards.

“Probably one of the saddest parts, I think, for a lot of the producers, will be to lose their lines and the genetics that they will have been working on for a long time,” Mr Martin said.

He said the fires would have a big impact in the long term, when farmers are ready to start restocking in one or two years’ time.

“Farmers are going to come back into a saleyard environment … they’re going to be competing on that international stage against the meat processors.

“That’s going to apply a lot of financial pressure to the farmer that’s trying to find source stock to put back into the paddock to continue our breeding cycles.”

Signs of hope

While livestock farmers bore the brunt of the losses, horticulture has also seen significant damage.

In southern New South Wales, Batlow’s famous apples were cooked where they hung, with thousands of trees having to be ripped out and replanted.

This year’s crop is expected to be down by at least 30 per cent.

Apple grower Greg Mouat said around 20 per cent of his trees were damaged by the fire that ravaged his property.

While some will have to be removed, he said he hoped others would recover.

“It’s really quite astounding, trees that were particularly cooked, and I thought, ‘Well, they’re going to have to be removed and we’re going to have to replant …

“Just to see them having a little bit of regrowth, it’s just really encouraging.”

The National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) today applauded the Biden administration for its initiation of a second U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) dispute panel concerning Canada’s ongoing refusal to meet its USMCA dairy trade obligations.

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