South Coast farmers brace for worse conditions

Dairy cows at Rocky Allen's Cobargo property on the South Coast. Photo: Rocky Allen
Dairy cows at Rocky Allen's Cobargo property on the South Coast. Photo: Rocky Allen

As if the drought hasn't been hard enough for South Coast dairy farmers, now the only pasture they had left has been burned.

But the worst may be far from over with farmers again bracing for severe fire conditions predicted on Saturday.

At the 404 hectare property of fifth generation dairy farmer Rocky Allen, there is not a blade of grass left after a fire described as "a tornado" torched 100 per cent of his farmland at Cobargo.

"We didn't have much pasture before because of the drought, and now it's just dirt, blackened ground," Mr Allen said.

Fodder being distributed at Cobargo. Photo: Rocky Allen

Fodder being distributed at Cobargo. Photo: Rocky Allen

When Mr Allen started to recall the early hours of New Year's Eve morning when the fire hit his property, he started to get emotional.

"I'm getting emotional again talking about it - it's devastation, just total devastation," he said.

"It was a fire tornado that's the only way to explain it."

In preparation before the fire, he and his father Tony moved 400 head of cattle including the 180 cows they milk, close to dams and creeks for safety.

They then waited for the fire to hit, which came at 4am.

"We heard rumbling out the back of the mountains all night and thought it went south and then it came back and hit us," he said.

"It started spot fires everywhere, so I put them out while dad was at the house with the tractor and water."

The pair defended their property for four hours before conditions eased.

Rocky Allen

Rocky Allen

"We were lucky at our farm, dad and I defended it, we saved our house and all the buildings including the dairy and hay shed, where other people haven't," Mr Allen said.

They didn't lose stock but he said a property nearby lost 160 heifers and 80 Angus cows while some people had to shoot cattle due to burns.

"With every person you talk to there is a new devastating story," he said.

During the conversation with The Land, Mr Allen said they were loading pellets to feed cows and two trucks carrying hay turned up for locals to get stock feed.

The Allens have been able to milk their cows using generators but the milk will be dumped for a few days until the roads are safe for trucks from Bega Cheese to collect it.

"Now we just pray for rain," he said.

Short and long-term future

Dairy NSW chair Jane Sherbourne said there would be some dairy farmers that would walk off the land after this fire.

"Yes is the simple answer," Ms Sherbourne said when asked whether the fires would push dairy farmers out of the industry.

"There has been a breaking point already, but people have hung in there while milk prices offered have been fairly good for a normal season but this season is not normal and it's not good enough."

Regardless of where the fires were from NSW to Gippsland in Victoria, she said it would impact the whole dairy industry.

"The problem is when there are less dairy farmers there is less ability to service the service industry and then they can't afford to stay in business and close up so there is a huge knock-on affect," she said.

In the meantime, Ms Sherbourne is preparing her own property at Burrawang where they milk 300 cows for two fire fronts (Green Wattle and Currowan) that are expected to hit her place at the same time on Saturday.

"We are moving cattle to safety and trying to cover all bases on how we can do it," she said.

Bega Cheese pays for dumped milk

Bega Cheese chairman Max Roberts said the company would pay its dairy farmers for dumped milk due to the fires on the South Coast.

"It's our responsibility to pick milk up and if we can't do that then we pay the full price of milk," Mr Roberts said.

"It's important for farmers to know that."

Mr Roberts said of the 65 farmers that supply Bega Cheese around 20 to 25 had been affected by the fires.

He said many had no power and had massive hay losses.

"One farmer got a delivery of hay on Monday afternoon but didn't get to cut a bale string, he lost the lot," he said.

Mr Roberts said Bega Cheese had purchased hay to deliver to farmers and a semi-load of generators were distributed this afternoon.

Preparing for worse conditions

The NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) has urged farmers and livestock managers in south-east NSW to prepare properties and move stock where possible, ahead of severe fire danger predicted for Saturday.

The warning is for the Monaro Alpine, Southern and Central Ranges, and Southern Slopes areas.

According to the DPI the safest options for livestock remaining on a property at risk of fire are:

  • Large heavily grazed or ploughed paddocks, or a number of paddocks with internal gates locked open to allow livestock to escape the fire
  • Large, clear stockyards
  • Large dams with earth mounded on a minimum of two fireward sides

Landholders impacted by bushfire who require assistance with emergency fodder and water, or with livestock assessment can call the Agricultural and Animal Services Hotline on 1800 814 647.

DPI and Local Land Services, through the Agricultural and Animal Services Functional Area, have so far provided 10,000 tonnes of emergency fodder and 7,500KL of emergency water to more than 3,000 landholders.

This story Not a blade of grass, just 'blackened ground' first appeared on The Land.