Australian ag sees ‘massive scale of destruction’

Greatest ag impact expected to be seen in beef, dairy and sheep industries.

Krissa Welshans, Livestock Editor

January 17, 2020

4 Min Read
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Rain has been falling in Australian regions affected by the historic bushfires, but after almost two years of drought, the country’s livestock and crop producers now face the detrimental impact of the bushfires.

An estimated 10 million hectares of land have been destroyed by fires, and more than 1.25 billion wildlife animals are thought to have been killed in the wake of these bushfires, but agricultural losses are not known yet.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service reported Jan. 16 that 82 bush and grass fires were still burning, with 30 yet to be contained. On the previous evening, 85 bush fires had been burning, and 30 were uncontained.

“We are starting to see some good [rainfalls] across some firegrounds. Let’s hope some of our farmers are also getting some moisture,” the agency tweeted.

On Jan. 14, Australia Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie noted the “massive scale of destruction — from vineyards, orchards and forestry plantations to livestock herds and abalone farms.”

The country announced an initial $100 million in emergency bushfire funding as well as an additional $15 million in a funding to the Rural Financial Counselling Service. Up to $75,000 in grants are being offered for farming businesses in fire-affected regions. 

“We will do whatever it takes to support those communities and businesses hit by these fires, and if we need to do more, we will,” Australia Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “I need to stress this is an uncapped program, so if demand for support goes above $100 million, money will continue to flow.”

As the scale of the damage becomes apparent, Morrison said, “It is clear that our farm, our fish and forest businesses need support, and along with communities who depend on them, we will help them rebuild, and we will continue to back them.”

During a Jan. 17 roundtable with agricultural leaders, McKenzie said the full devastation of the bushfires on the agriculture sector is yet to be fully realized, “but we do know that many farmers have lost their livestock and fruit crops. Foresters have seen their plantations destroyed, fishers have lost the ability to maintain their catch throughout this crisis and beekeepers have seen over 4,600 hives destroyed, with 23,000 suffering losses.”

She continued, "To rebuild these impacted businesses and communities will take an intentional and coordinated approach, and today was the first of many discussions as we work together to support our $60 billion agriculture sector, which is a major employer across regional Australia.”

While crops have certainly been affected, drought had already reduced production output.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has once again reduced its forecast for Australia's wheat production.

USDA meteorologist Harlan Shannon explained that Australia “had a drought-reduced crop last year, and now they have a further-reduced crop."

Shannon added that while summer crops, such as cotton and sorghum, could be directly affected by the wildfires, “the reality is many of these crops are already suffering from a severe, long-term drought, and it’s unlikely that the wildfires will have a significant impact on production.”

The greatest agricultural impact is expected to be seen in the beef, dairy and sheep industries, Shannon reported.

The fires have killed livestock, burned pastures, destroyed buildings and fencing and interrupted transportation throughout the affected regions, he added.

“We have witnessed catastrophic bushfires roar through millions of hectares of rural and regional Australia, much of it farmland,” Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) said in an update. “The number of people and animals affected, plus the amount of infrastructure impacted and vegetation destroyed, is unprecedented.”

MLA said while the extent of the full impact to livestock is unknown and will take time to understand, it is known that there are close to 80,000 property identification codes in the main affected regions.

“Our latest information is that 9% of the national cattle herd live in regions that have been significantly impacted and a further 11% in regions partially impacted. For sheep, 13% of the national flock live in regions that have been significantly impacted and a further 17% in regions partially impacted,” MLA said.

USDA livestock analyst Shayle Shagam said already lower Australian beef inventories could continue to be reduced throughout the year due to the effects of the ongoing drought and wildfires. Additionally, it may be up to a year or even two years before pastures fully recover.

This, coupled with significant stress such as extreme heat and lack of water and available forage, means it may be a while before some of those animals can re-establish themselves in terms of breeding cycles, Shagam explained.

The continued reduction in USDA's beef inventory forecast for Australia “will probably put us somewhere in the lowest ranges since the late 1980s," he added.

CoBank analyst Will Sawyer told Feedstuffs that the impact to Australia’s beef industry seems to be much more in the form of hay and silage loss than lost livestock.

However, he added, “I have heard numbers between 100,000 and 200,000 from livestock groups and analysts, and, as livestock feed was already in short supply due to the drought, the fires will make herd contraction continue that much more.”

About the Author(s)

Krissa Welshans

Livestock Editor

Krissa Welshans grew up on a crop farm and cow-calf operation in Marlette, Michigan. Welshans earned a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Michigan State University and master’s degree in public policy from New England College. She and her husband Brock run a show cattle operation in Henrietta, Texas, where they reside with their son, Wynn.

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