Expect the unexpected!

By Lisa Castleman, Agronomist, Ag Services Team, Riverina Local Land Services (0427 201 963 lisa.castleman@lls.nsw.gov.au)

Flood impacted pastureAnyone who has ever been involved in an emergency knows that decisions are often made in a split second when lives and property are threatened. These lives at stake can be our own, that of family and friends, neighbours, our companion animals, working dogs or guard animals, our livestock and local wildlife.

In normal circumstances we would not wish to prioritise any of these. Lives and property are important and things we hold dear, along with our businesses.

When disaster becomes a possibility, it would be a rare occurrence for someone to regret acting too early. Can we be too cautious? Not really, if those cautious steps avert losses.

Just over four weeks ago in the Northern Rivers a small property I own was impacted by flood.

One of my reflections while being involved in the muddy cleanup and wearing gumboots and gloves day after day, is that the local dairy farmer had the foresight to move all of his stock along a river road to higher ground just in time. It took a number of vehicles, motorbikes and horses, and a number of hours. His family had farmed there on the river flats for generations and from what he had observed, he speculated that the flood waters would rise some 4-5 feet and this flood event might equal that of 1974. Along the way he passed the message along to at least one neighbour who had only been in the area for 12 years.

Over the next 24 hours the floodwaters would rise to an unprecedented 3.7-4.0 metres above the ground, far in excess of the 4 feet the dairy farmer had anticipated. The nearest river (The Richmond River) was 2 kilometres away and the river flats usually drained well into nearby creeks and wetlands in a high rainfall location (1200 mm per annum). The neighbour he had warned about a 4 foot flood was later rescued in a tinny from the first floor balcony. Farms were flooded, ruining farm equipment, machinery, infrastructure such as rainwater tanks, fences and smaller sheds, and crops were inundated.

Along with other emergency services involved in disaster response and recovery, the organisation I work for has an active role in emergency management and the response during and after a disaster such as flood or bushfire. There is now a hotline called the

Agriculture and Animal Services Hotline on 1800 814 647

managed by NSW DPI and Local Land Services staff. These staff can assist with animal assessment and veterinary assistance, stock euthanasia and burial, emergency fodder (up to 3 days supply), emergency stock water and livestock feeding, and the management advice for the care of animals in evacuation centres.

The Hotline is available 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm.

Flood impacted pastureA few days after the flood one of the neighbour’s horses was found to have died after having been swept away in the rising floodwaters overnight without any higher ground to get to. The Agriculture and Animal Services Hotline was able to assist with removal from the verge of a public road and burial, which is an important service. Other producers with cattle stranded by the flood have been able to request fodder drops.

The risk of flood up in the Northern Rivers in NSW is still real, with another East Coast Low having just occurred this week. Rainfall events of 260 mm in one afternoon and 400mm in one evening have occurred during a week of heavy rainfall, falling onto soil with a saturated moisture profile and a catchment with waterways already full. Once again, producers in the region have been on alert. The dairy cows who were walked out last time to higher ground have now been trucked out. The risk to their welfare was too great with paddocks inundated, pastures heavily impacted and rivers swollen.

The loss of livestock in any disaster takes an emotional toll on impacted livestock producers who are responsible on a daily basis for the health and welfare of their livestock. Disasters are rarely foreseen and stock take time to move to safety when we are dealing with herds and movement over kilometres. Flash flooding or bushfire can also occur after nightfall when moving stock is less feasible. Livestock who have been injured or become severely unwell after a disaster may need to be euthanised also which is traumatic for livestock producers, and staff are there to assist.

If the trauma of the recent floods in Northern NSW have reminded you of the Dunn’s Road Bushfire in the summer of 19/20 then I sincerely acknowledge your trauma and hardship you went through as a producer and land-holder. Your losses were immense.

It can take years for a business to recover from disaster but living through a disaster or catastrophe does not leave us the same person. Surviving a trauma can be a double-edged sword, as knowing we can survive it can enable us to feel more resilient, but the knock and shock makes us more vulnerable. Added to our own trauma, livestock producers genuinely care about the animals they raise and the loss of our livestock hits us very hard.

Putting a Disaster Plan together allows us to think through how we would act in a time of stress and when seconds matter. Consider the real risk of disaster for your property. For one landholder it may be bushfire they need a plan for, for another it could be a flash flood along their creek country, or for someone else it could be a Plan for both risks.

As you contemplate the risk of Disaster on your farm, remember that historical events can either make us more cautious or more complacent. If your farm has never been burnt before nor flooded, is it impossible or just not likely? It is common for those who believe it will never happen to them to not have a Disaster Plan they can ever implement, if and when required.

For those producers who have not lived through a disaster, then please reflect on others’ lived experience and put a Disaster Plan together. It is difficult to Plan when we need to Act. The time for planning is when we have a clear head and danger is not imminent. When planning, consider your response to an event which is 33-67% more extreme than any event your farm, you or a near neighbour has previously experienced. I advise this figure as it is feasible or within the limits of both imagining and decision-making. It is not a forecast of what will happen.

It is only by ‘expecting the unexpected’ that we can plan for a future event and then we still need to update our Disaster Plan every 5 years.

Be practical in your Disaster Plan which can be broader than just what you do if there is an emergency or Disaster and how you prioritise your movements, protecting life then assets and co-ordinating any necessary stock movements.

As a farm advisor, I invite you to participate in a planning exercise with your farm family and farm employees. Under the Disaster Plan, name names and allocate tasks. Have a property map with a gathering point to meet if phones go down or go flat, nominated escape routes and alternative routes and everything else you can think of to discuss. I assure you, the discussion will be worthwhile and everybody will have something to add.

Thinking through the Disaster Plan means that you might consider the need for extra laneways on-farm for easier stock movement in the event of a disaster, the placement of additional gateways in paddocks closer to areas of bushfire prone vegetation, the positioning of fencing besides creeks with wider buffer zones for rising water, the location of any new farm infrastructure where it is safest, the addition of green buffers (such as lucerne paddocks which are greener over summer than many other pastures) around farmhouses and infrastructure and so on. Such improvements can gradually be made over time but will not occur unless their need is identified.

Expect the unexpected and create a Disaster Plan for your own safety and for the longevity of your farming business.

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