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How expert advice helped pasture recovery after devastating fires

Having a plan in place before the fires, and getting expert advice quickly helped a high country beef producer continue farming after the fires of January 2020.

Justin Costello’s properties were among the many impacted by the fires that ravaged Corryong in the summer of 2019/2020. He runs a beef operation and was fully stocked with fodder going into the summer. Dams were low as the area had experienced a prolonged dry spell.

“Like many others, we were burnt out. In addition to the standing fodder, we lost three tanks, five haysheds and three piles of silage, as well as all our fences. Our water points were operating at about 30 per cent.”

With 90 per cent of their pasture gone, the impact was direct. Calves had been weaned in November and December so just the cows and heifers were left. All of the bulls had perished in the fire. There was nowhere to put the livestock except black country.

Justin had to make critical decisions quickly about how they were going to move forward with cow numbers and what recovery would look like.

Have a plan

Justin says that having a good plan in place made it easier to start the recovery process quickly.

“We had a plan, and it was robust. It was based on reliable seasons. Even though the rule book changed straight after the fires, the one thing to our advantage was that we knew exactly how many cows we had and we knew where every paddock was because we had farm planning that was done with AgribWebb. This gave us a roadmap for what was possible.”

Within four days of the fires, Justin contacted the team at Valley Seeds. His first priority was to get some clarity about how to produce the feed he needed for for the cows to survive.

“You’re in defence mode after something like the fires. It’s hard to make decisions. You have one thing to do for the day, and you do that. Unless you have a plan, nothing gets done. So we needed that strategy for how to feed the cows. The advice from Valley Seeds gave us clarity to make good decisions.”

Advice from the experts

Justin had received nutrition advice, so he understood the feed gaps. When he rang Valley Seeds, he knew how much feed he needed.

Valley Seeds put together a plan for spraying, sowing and fertiliser to manage the pasture growth and get the pasture outcomes he needed, which included feed to fill the gaps, and a return over time to the primarily perennial pasture .

“It was very good peace of mind that they were on the other end of the phone. It can be hard to get into a fire zone but we had an existing relationship with them so it was easy to email them information like farm design, photos of paddocks and soil test results., but because we knew them and they knew our farm.

“All of the grass fires burned hot and high. After the flames go through the grass still burns down to the root zone. So your perennial grasses survive and your clovers are effectively intact. It takes some time for them to recover, and we didn’t have the luxury of time.”

“We needed to move forward with healthy cows, cycling, calving, milk for calves. We were very keen to get to the point where we didn’t have to feed the cows every day, and we didn’t want to have to reduce stock numbers.”

Valley Seeds put forward a range of pasture mixes including Annuals and Italians. Perennials were included to a point in the first year.

“With their help we were able to start to plan quickly how much grass to grow. If you know how much you can grow, you know how many days you’ll have stock in a paddock and you can plan stock rotation.”

Justin is also building up the fodder reserve again, to replace the hay and silage that was lost in the fire.

Now in year two, they’re still bulking up the perennials in the system, aiming to get back to where he was before the fires. Justin says he’s also more efficient now at using the silage and hay that they grow.

“I never want to do it again, but you want to be able to reflect on what you did well and what you could have done better. If you can make a good pasture plan that can save you. It can buy you time.

“What I would say is, know as much as you can about your paddocks and know where all your water points are. When experts give you advice after a fire, probably listen to it. What we know now from dealing with Valley Seeds is that their advice provided a lot of feed and a lot of opportunities for us to stay farming.”

Justin Costello runs livestock agency business Costello Rural and beef properties in Corryong in Victoria’s high country.

If this article and its reminder of bushfire impact has raised issues for you, please reach out to Lifeline on 13 11 14 for 24/7 crisis support.

Beyond Blue also has an excellent article about bushfires and mental health on their website.

“What we know now from dealing with Valley Seeds is that their advice provided a lot of feed and a lot of opportunities for us to stay farming.”

livestock in smokey air, burnt out building galv sheets
January 2020
burnt paddocks with green haze after fires
February 2020
pasture with forage in autumn
April 2020
paddock with lush pasture and farmer in mid ground
May 2020
black angus cattle near dam with lush pasture
October 2020
cattle in lush pasture with burnt mountain in background
February 2021

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