New study into the effects of bushfires on cattle and sheep health and welfare
Researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Sydney and Ausvet have received $A1.3 million from Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) to conduct an extensive, two-year study on the effects of the 2019–2020 bushfire season on grazing stock and how farm businesses have recovered since the fires.
“No farmer can stand to see their animals suffer and Australians were heartbroken to see animals endure pain, suffering and death during the bushfire emergency of 2019–2020,” said Dr Caitlin Pfeiffer, co-lead researcher and Lecturer in Veterinary Epidemiology at the Melbourne Veterinary School.
“This study has the potential to create real, positive impact for Australia’s red meat farmers and greatly reduce the loss and trauma suffered by both humans and animals during bushfire events.”
By assessing animal health and welfare, as well as subsequent effects on product quality and financial strain for farmers, the study aims to provide a comprehensive ‘Livestock Wellbeing Bushfire Preparation and Recovery Manual’ for farmers to address the physical and financial effects of bushfires.
Researchers say Australia’s beef industry, which is valued at $A19.6 billion in 2019, and sheep meat industry, which is valued at $A6.6 billion in 2019, are vital to the national economy. Improvements to bushfire preparedness could result in a reduction in stock losses that save tens of thousands of dollars for individual farmers affected by fire.
In the wake of one of Australia’s worst ever recorded fire seasons, the study will examine the mid- to long-term effects of these bushfires on surviving animals’ health and welfare, as well as herd and flock managers’ bushfire preparedness strategies.
It will also investigate patterns of burnt areas and livestock losses across each farm’s landscape, identifying important features that will allow farmers to determine the safest paddocks for stock to be in as part of their fire plan.
The research will develop a paddock fire risk index that can be used on any farm for future management decision-making, informing strategies for red meat farmers to reduce the extent of livestock injury and loss in the event of a bushfire and, once a bushfire has occurred, minimise ongoing impacts.
It will also address environmental recovery by studying and recommending post-fire management plans to improve pasture rehabilitation and reduce the risk of introducing weeds.
Researchers will also assess the effect of fire exposure on subsequent carcass damage and meat quality in animals that survive fire events.
The study will involve an in-depth survey of herd and flock managers affected in the 2019–2020 fire season, along with online surveys of a wider audience, examination of data collected by the red meat industries, and an expert opinion workshop.
With future fire seasons set to intensify with climate change, researchers say this study will be invaluable to animal health and welfare and farmers’ livelihoods in Australia.
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Banner image: A herd of sheep shrouded in smoke from bushfires in rural Victoria, 3 January 2020. Photo: Beverley Van Praagh, Adobe Stock.