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Bush Fires And Beef Production

Editor’s Note: Kim Nielsen, an ag fieldman for the County of Clearwater in west central Alberta, is part way through a six-month work experience visit in Victoria, Australia. He is writing regular reports for Grainews on his experiences during his stay.

It has indeed been an unbelievable last month here in Victoria culminating with the devastating bush fires that ravaged the areas north and east of Melbourne on February 7. I was never directly impacted by the fires, the closest to Hamilton being the Coleraine fire about 50 km west, but like everyone else the images and the stories will remain with me for a long time.

I had been working near the impacted communities leading up to “Black Saturday” just a week earlier conducting some surveying and treatment of the State Prohibited Weed Lobed Needle Grass (Nassella charruana) and it brought reality and empathy to the horrific pictures, undoubtedly seen in the media in Canada as well. My work here in Hamilton will change now as a result of the fires.

The Victoria Bush Fire Recovery Program rests within the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and is an ongoing Program that kicks in after fires, not unlike what I have been involved with back in Clearwater County (Alberta) following major forest fires and floods. DPI mobilizes teams to bushfire affected areas to collect information and conduct preliminary fire damage assessments relating to animal welfare needs, hay, fencing and livestock losses.

The Feb 7/09 Victoria Bush Fires will, however, remain in a league of its own with an almost unimaginable and clearly unprecedented weather pattern forming the day before with record high temperatures and strong winds from Central Australia forecasted. This combined with the previous week’s scorching temperatures well into the high forties, years of drought conditions and tinder dry bush was a recipe for disaster. Bush Fire Warnings from the Country Fire Authorities were announced on the State Fire Emergency Radio Station, operated by ABC, all day with clear directives to evacuate early in case of a threatening fire but for so many people when the fires were detected the fire front moved with overwhelming speed.

I was on the road in the morning of Feb 7, on my way back to Hamilton from another Australian “must see” event, a cricket match at the MCG in Melbourne featuring Australia vs New Zealand and had stayed the night at the Steve Young residence in Ballarat. Leaving at 9 am it was already 30C and as I arrived at Hamilton two hours later the mercury had climbed to 41C and there was a gale force wind from the north with gusts over 100km/hr, giving a similar sensation to having a hair dryer blowing in your face. I thought on the way home that should a fire ever start in these conditions it would be a horrendous task to extinguish it.

The Coleraine fire, west of Hamilton, started late afternoon as a result of a downed power line but was quickly put out by helicopters and ground crews as it was relatively flat terrain and mainly a grass fire. Others started the same way with the major difference that those north of Melbourne were in extremely hilly and heavily treed areas and falling trees slowed and in some cases blocked evacuation routes. The East Gippsland fire was however started by a suspected arsonist apprehended a couple of days ago.

The affected communities are very strong and the overall Aussie spirit has pulled people together in a reminding fashion to what happened across Western Canada during the 2003-2004 drought years. At the time of writing close to $100 million has been raised outside of any government assistance packages and feed is being brought in from New South Wales, which in dark contrast has received record high rainfall the last month.

I’ll be heading up to the Alexander area to assist in the Incident Command Centers, where the fire fighting and the bush fire relief activities are directed from. All fires are now under control but, due to the massive size of some of them, the back burning of the containment lines will be on-going for several weeks. The attached photos manifest the role of fire fighting that most rural folks have engrained in their culture. They are from a visit to the Simon Mooney’s in the Colac area where Simon plays an active role in the voluntary Deans Marsh Country Fire Authority and brought the fire truck home for the kids’ grand enjoyment practicing fire drills with their newly acquired Christmas gift firefighter’s attire.

Moving away from this sad story I had the pleasure of participating in the Hamilton Beef Expo recently. This is your typical rural agricultural event with stock shows and machinery displays. In Victoria the livestock sector has recently seen a dramatic decline in favor of cropping. This is mainly due to annual crops faring better in drought conditions than perennial pasture crops and sheep numbers are down considerably.

The Western District of Victoria, where I live, is well known for its beef production with Herefords and Angus breeds dominating. The ideal calving time is a good topic for discussion as it is back up in Clearwater although with drastically different challenges. Certainly no frozen ears in Victoria, but cool wet weather with strong winds during winter can still be hard on a young calf causing some cattle folks to prefer spring calving over autumn calving. Others stick to autumn calving as re-breeding happens during early spring on good grass as opposed to during the hot, dry summer.

The quality of cattle is excellent and there is nothing wrong with a charbroiled Australian Scotch steak, especially when accompanied by a glass of Australian Shiraz. I spoke with an Angus breeder Stephen Branson from Mortlake, south of Hamilton at the Beef Expo where the Branson family displayed some of their Banquet Seed Stock featured in the up-coming bull sale. I was impressed by the easy fleshing, deep, stretchy, moderately framed and well muscled bulls who would fit nicely onto 4 Clover Ranch, Rocky Mountain House. Semen from one of the Banquet Bulls is in fact available in Canada. http://www.angusaustralia.com.au/M Record Prices. htm this website will give a bit of indication of the quality of the Banquet cattle.

On the machinery front I couldn’t help notice the direct seeding machines for pasture renovations and drawing parallels to Clearwater County’s Direct Seeding Demo Drill we built a few years back, an old converted JD 9350 hoe drill that has proven as an excellent tool in topdressing pastures and hayfields around Rocky Mountain House. In Victoria top dressing legumes into pastures is a very common practice.

Also common are the pull type bale un-rollers used to lay out a string of feed in a gentler way than through a bale shredder. Some of these come with engine power packs so the unit can be towed with the common Ute, similar to a small -ton truck, but a beefy little unit common with three liter diesel engines.

Summer will draw to a close in a month or so and farmers will begin preparations for seeding, not seeding winter cereals as such but seeding the “spring cereals” in the fall to take advantage of improved soil moisture. The lack of significant winter frost will permit the crops to slowly grow during winter and then take off in the spring and be harvested early summer. I’ll be attending the Wimmera Field Days in Horsham in a couple of weeks, which is one of the largest machinery tradeshows in Victoria. I’ll snap some photos of the machinery used in the cropping districts and share this in my next article.

Kim J. Nielsen, Pest Management OfficerDepartment of Primary Industries, Landscape Protection Portfolio, Hamilton, Victoria, Australia. On loan from Clearwater County Agricultural Services, Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, [email protected]au

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