Currowan Fire, which burnt for 74 days across the Shoalhaven, was officially extinguished by heavy rains in early February. The fires may be out but Narrawilly and Croobyar farms are still dealing with a seemingly endless set of challenges and crises arising from them.
Armyworm caterpillars arrived in Milton district in mid-March. In a matter of days, the caterpillars had eaten hundreds of acres of sorghum crop, millet crop and fresh pastures on both Narrawilly and Croobyar farms. Preferring the sweetest parts of a plant, the voracious pests devastated crops Rob had planted for our herd's winter feed.
Armyworm on sorghum
Kikuyu Grass Poisoning
Kikuyu Grass Poisoning, an unusual disorder in cattle, is present on both farms. After the fires and the rains in February, kikuyu grass came back quickly -- its bright green shoots covering landscape turned to black ash by January's devastating fires. February's heavy rains triggered its rapid growth but, unfortunately, this is precisely what's bringing sickness to our animals.
Kikuyu produces a toxin to stop pests eating its leaves. (It's the plant's natural defence mechanism.) No prizes for guessing correctly which pest kikuyu is trying to protect itself from right now. According to the NSW Department of Primary Industries, armyworm is one of kikuyu's main pests, and the plant has evolved the ability to produce chemicals to protect itself.
Unfortunately, when cattle graze on too much kikuyu grass full of this self-protecting chemical, the animals can develop Kikuyu Grass Poisoning. Our herds are at risk right now, and Rob and the teams are closely monitoring the sick animals. We are fortunate that our losses are far less severe than those experienced by our neighbours. In one case, a neighbouring farm has lost up to 60% of its herd.
Kikuyu grass (source: Department of Primary Industries)
Three Day Sickness
Three Day Sickness (or Bovine Ephemeral Fever), a vector-borne disease, is another after-effect of the bushfires. When an ecosystem is impacted by bushfires or floods, outbreaks of vector-borne diseases -- carried by midges, mosquitoes, ticks or flies, for example -- increase.
As far back as Rob can remember, Milton district has never had an outbreak of Three Day Sickness. A DPI factsheet on Three Day Sickness suggests that the disease is rare in southern NSW. Thus, there is no immunity among cattle herds in the district or on our farms.
The symptoms of Three Day Sickness include cows experiencing rapid high fever and difficulty walking or standing, lethargy, drooling and depression. The afflicted animals are left in their grazing paddocks to recover. Our brilliant, dedicated veterinarians have taken blood samples and are inspecting the herd regularly. Yet again, our losses are minimal compared to those of neighbouring farms. But it does impact on milk production -- we have had a 40% decline due to Three Day Sickness.
Mitigating the worst of the impacts
All of this is taking its toll on the staff and Rob. It is very tough seeing animals sick. A cow can be healthy one day, yet unable to walk or stand the next. And it is always difficult to euthanise an animal. These past 6 weeks have been extremely trying for Rob, our teams on Narrawilly and Croobyar, and our farming neighbours in Milton.
To mimimise the impact of Kikuyu Grass Poisoning and Three Day Sickness, Narrawilly's paddocks have been mulched and mowed, and all kikuyu growing there removed. Rob, David, Young Michael and a team of contractors have been working from sun-up until after sunset to get this task done. Mowing and mulching removes the kikuyu as a source of food for the armyworm. It significantly reduces the presence of poisonous kikuyu in the paddocks. Our animals aren't able to graze lush paddocks but are being hand-fed with hay and grain. It is a very expensive option, but preventing sickness, suffering and death in the herd is absolutely vital.