After the north-west Queensland floods

After the floodwaters in north-west Queensland have receded, there are a number of factors to consider to ensure long term productivity of a pastoral business. Below are a list of resources that may help maintain focus.

Information about financial assistance following the February 2019 floods can be found on the Queensland Rural and Industry Development Authority (QRIDA) website. Listed on this page are the shires that have been granted access to Category B and C assistance packages. Producers in affected areas can apply for grants of up to $75 000 to help with things like hiring and leasing of equipment, removing debris or damaged goods, repairing or replacing fencing or other essential property infrastructure, replacing livestock, salvaging feed or crops and maintaining the health of the surviving livestock.

DAF and QRIDA held a webinar on 25 February regarding available financial assistance. The recording of the webinar can be viewed here.

An additional subsidy for the freight of fodder, equipment and livestock is available from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) under the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements to the maximum amount of $5000. Details regarding eligibility and applicability are available on the DAF website.

An alternative subsidy that is available to offset the cost of freight when restocking a property can be applied for through the Drought Relief Assistance Scheme. The amount of the subsidy is dependent upon the number of years a property has been drought declared and the submission of a DAF supported Drought Management Plan. However, primary producers will need to apply to have their drought status revoked prior to the purchase of additional cattle or the re-introduction of currently owned stock from agistment. Click here to read more information about this subsidy, the terms of the agreement, how to apply and contact details of who to contact if you have further questions.

Applicants of either the QRIDA assistance package or the Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements, who are intending to bring livestock onto a drought declared property, will need to consider the implications of doing so to their eligibility to access to Drought Relief Assistance Scheme subsidies.

To identify which freight subsidy is most suited to your business and circumstances, please call 13 25 23.

Essential household content grants are available to help replace essential household items for those who have been affected by natural disasters such as flood and are uninsured or unable to claim insurance. The structural assistance grant is available to help those in a similar situation who are uninsured or are unable to claim insurance to make their home secure and safe.

The Rural Financial Counselling Service have compiled an additional list of grants and assistance available for primary producers and families that have been affected by the February 2019 floods.

Mitchell grass pasture response across north-western Queensland has been variable following the monsoonal rains of January to February 2019. Depending on the situation, balance between pasture recovery and re-stocking is required.

While some areas have been impacted by flooding and erosion, the rain has also provided recovery opportunity for those perennial pastures struggling from severe long-term drought conditions.

This fact sheet aims to provide general advice and recommendations to recover pastures as quickly and effectively as possible.

The flooding has led to:

  • mass germination of Mitchell grass seedlings, which provides a rare opportunity to improve productivity of Mitchell grass pastures
  • Mitchell grass tussocks (plants) undercut by fast moving floodwater, exposing the crowns and roots, which are at risk of being pulled out or weakened by cattle grazing
  • pastures buried in silt, especially downstream of areas eroded by flooding
  • mass germination of short-lived forbs.

General advice

Deferred re-stocking, light grazing pressure and wet-season spelling are the key management approaches to recover Mitchell grass pastures as quickly as possible and to restore long-term land condition and productivity. Effective promotion of pasture recovery will require active management and movement of stock based on observing the pasture recovery and responses to grazing.

As a general guide, it is recommended to:

  • allow seedlings to grow for four to six months (from March to mid-winter 2019) through delayed re-stocking or low stocking rates
  • allow weak tussocks to become firmly established in the ground through delayed re-stocking or low stocking rates
  • avoid high impact grazing with large mobs of cattle in which will trample seedlings and weak tussocks
  • monitor seedling and tussock establishment at easy to access sites you are likely to revisit every three to four weeks. Look for evidence of stock impact on their health and survivability
  • review stock numbers and pasture recovery in July/August 2019
  • budget stock numbers to leave a minimum of 15–20 cm residual Mitchell grass stubble height by the end of the dry-season.

Most properties will have a mix of pasture impacts and responses, ranging from having only Mitchell grass seedlings, to weakened plants hanging on by a few roots, through to healthy plants which are responding well. We recommend:

  • prioritise the areas to delay re-stocking, graze and spell, or stock lightly, based on the current pasture response
  • continue to observe both your pastures and cattle to balance pasture recovery and cattle production
  • recover the strongest pastures in the first few weeks, as these can then be grazed allowing other areas to be spelled—they will also be the most productive into the future.

Ideally, all flood-affected pastures will be spelled for at least four to eight weeks by delaying restocking until the majority of Mitchell grass has started to go to seed. The Mitchell grass does not need to have hayed off—the pasture will still be green but seed heads will be clearly visible at the tops of stalks and starting to fill out with seeds. Recommendations vary according to the pasture response, and these are outlined in the following sections.

Pastures with strong, healthy Mitchell grass tussocks

Pastures that have a reasonable to high number of Mitchell grass tussocks (one tussock every two to three paces or better when walking through the paddock) and strong, healthy Mitchell grass tussocks need the least help to recover. The land condition is good, and a four to six week spell or low stocking rate for the remainder of the wet season will promote good pasture growth and maximise carry over feed for the dry season. Maximising the available feed in these healthy pastures will provide options —for example, to spell weakened pastures.

If there is a good bulk of feed on offer (yields above 1200 kg/ha) and the majority of Mitchell grass is going to seed, the pasture is robust enough to graze at usual stocking rates. Seedlings within these pastures are unlikely to be grazed by cattle, and should establish normally. The occasional weakened tussock within these pastures should also be able to recover, as the chances of these plants being grazed is low.

Recommendations

1. Delay re-stocking for four to six weeks until the majority of Mitchell grass is going to seed, or low stocking rates for the remainder of the wet season.
2. Feed budgeting to leave a minimum of 15–20 cm residual Mitchell grass stubble height by the start of the 2019–20 wet season.
3. Avoid high-impact grazing from large mobs of stock as this will harm seedlings.

Pastures with weakened Mitchell grass tussocks

Pastures that have a reasonable to high number of Mitchell grass tussocks (one tussock every two to three paces or better), but where the majority have been weakened by erosion, extended duration of flooding or silting over, will respond well to delayed re-stocking or low stocking rates. Ideally, these pastures should not be grazed until tussocks are firmly anchored in the soil. This can readily be tested by tugging on the plant. If Mitchell grass tussocks pull out after three firm yanks, then cattle will also be able to pull the plant out as they graze.

Very low stocking rates will also reduce the risk of tussocks being pulled out, if delayed re-stocking is not possible. Obviously, the risk is higher if there is little other feed on offer. If there is a reasonable bulk of herbages and other feed on offer (yields above 800 kg/ha) then low stocking rates can be nearly as effective as spelling. Research in the north-west area demonstrates that Mitchell grass tussocks larger than 5 cm diameter at the base are better able to survive drought. Spelling and light grazing that encourages plants to re-establish well, will improve pasture productivity for the next 20 years or more.

Seedlings in these pastures are also at risk of being pulled out once they grow taller than 10–15 cm high, especially if there is little other feed on offer. Delayed re-stocking or low stocking rates will help encourage these seedlings to establish.

Recommendations

1. Delay re-stocking or stock at low stocking rates, depending on overall feed on offer, until tussocks are firmly anchored.
2. Use feed budgeting, or stock very lightly for the remainder of the year, to leave a minimum of 15–20 cm residual Mitchell grass stubble height by the start of the 2019–20 wet season.
3. Plan to spell for eight to twelve weeks over each of the next one to three wet seasons until tussocks have grown to 5 cm diameter or larger at the base and responding vigorously to rain.
4. Avoid high impact grazing from large mobs of stock as this will harm seedlings and weakened tussocks.

Pastures with a low density of Mitchell grass tussocks

Pastures that have a low number of Mitchell grass tussocks (one tussock every five to six paces or worse), have generally had a very high germination of Mitchell grass seedlings following this rain event. This provides a rare (about one in twenty year) opportunity to re-invigorate pastures to be as productive as possible for the next 20 to 30 years by increasing the density of Mitchell grass and improving land condition. However, these areas are also at the greatest risk of further decline.
Where Mitchell grass seedlings have taken root and survived, as little as 5 mm rain every two to three weeks will keep them growing. Research shows that when Mitchell grass seedlings are constantly grazed, their roots are not able to grow as deeply as they need to, they’re not firmly anchored and aren’t able to properly establish ready for the dry season. Research in the north-west has also shown that Mitchell grass seedlings are most at risk from grazing in the next summer after germination (i.e. the 2019–20 summer) as they attempt to expand at the base, extend their roots and become established as mature tussocks.

In pastures with a good bulk of feed on offer (yields of 1200 kg/ha or better), seedlings tend to be naturally protected from grazing as sheep or cattle will seek out herbages and annual grasses. In addition, seedlings need to grow taller than 10–15 cm high to be readily accessible for cattle and at risk of being pulled out or stunted by grazing.

Grazing pastures with little feed other than seedlings on offer (yields of 500 kg/ha or less) puts seedlings at high risk of being grazed, pulled out, or having their root growth stunted. It is essential to allow these seedlings to establish properly through delayed re-stocking until they are firmly anchored in the soil and larger than 2 cm diameter at the base. This will typically require spelling for four to six months after germination (March to mid-winter 2019) and again for eight to twelve weeks over summer. Wet season spelling (six to eight weeks over January to February) for the following one to three summers will then encourage their establishment as mature tussocks. These plants will contribute to sustained pasture production for the next 20 to 30 years.

Recommendations

1. Delay re-stocking or stock at low stocking rates, depending on overall feed on offer, until seedlings are firmly anchored.
2. Use feed budgeting, or stock very lightly for the remainder of the year, to leave a minimum of 15–20 cm residual Mitchell grass stubble height by the start of the 2019–20 wet season.
3. Plan to spell for eight to twelve weeks over the 2019–20 summer, and again for the next one to three wet seasons until seedlings have grown to tussocks of 5 cm diameter or larger at the base and responding vigorously to rain.
4. Avoid high impact grazing from large mobs of stock as this will harm seedlings and weakened tussocks.

Recommendations for pastures with a mixed response

Within any one property, there is likely to be a mix of pasture responses. Prioritising areas to recover may seem challenging and it is worth considering:

  • Pastures with dense stands of healthy Mitchell grass will benefit from four to six weeks spelling (until the majority of tussocks are going to seed), to maximise new growth and carry-over feed for the rest of the year.
  • Pastures with dense stands of weakened Mitchell grass will recover with spelling and low stocking rates to allow the tussocks to become firmly anchored, coupled with wet season spelling for eight to twelve weeks over the next one to three summers.
  • Pastures with scattered Mitchell grass tussocks but dense seedlings will recover with delayed re-stocking for four to six months, low stocking rates over the dry season, and follow-up wet season spelling of eight to twelve weeks over the next one to four summers. This is a rare opportunity to recover land that is in poor condition.

If practical, lightly stock areas that have grown reasonable yields of herbage for four to eight weeks whilst spelling dense stands of Mitchell grass. This will allow areas with strong Mitchell grass to respond quickly and maximise the carry-over feed on offer. Maximising the carry over feed will then provide options to spell the weaker areas.

Be prepared to move stock off herbage-dominant pastures as soon as the yield is grazed below 500 kg/ha or cattle are grazing weakened Mitchell grass tussocks or seedlings. This may be to other herbage dominant pastures or onto the recovered dense stands of Mitchell grass.

To monitor and keep an eye on seedling and tussock establishment, we recommend choosing easy-to-access sites at locations that you are likely to revisit every three to four weeks. Look for seedlings and tussocks to be expanding at the base and to be firmly anchored. Check for the risk of damage from grazing or trampling and aim to retain 15–20 cm Mitchell grass stubble height by the start of next wet season.

Active management and monitoring will be required, along with the flexibility to quickly move cattle as required. Purchasing classes of cattle that offer the greatest flexibility for de-stocking, or allow running low stocking rates, will help balance pasture recovery and animal production.

Balancing pasture recovery and animal production

To help balance pasture and animal production, you may also wish to consider:

  • classes of cattle that will give flexibility and can be easily sold for cash flow in a short to medium-term trade (say, 90–120 days)
  • young heifers at half the stocking rate of steers over a longer period, if you are seeking to rebuild your breeding herd
  • electric fencing and hot tape as a cheap and fast option for securing paddocks for pasture management
  • the risk of limited hay availability due to poor cropping conditions in southern Australia
  • flexible agistment contracts that allow you to move cattle off your pastures
  • planning to move or sell stock based on pasture re-establishment.

Everyone reading this information will understand how their pasture has responded, and every situation will be different.

We have aimed to provide general advice only to cover the most common situations following this 2019 flood event.

The Australian Veterinary Association is providing a free advice hotline where calls are answered by experienced cattle vets for flood affected graziers who have concerns about the health of their animals. The number to call is 1800 621 918.

In many ways, animals in drought experience the same nutritional challenges as those animals affected by recently flooded conditions – difficulty in accessing sufficient amounts of quality feed to meet their nutritional demands. The New South Wales Department of Primary Industries provides a good summary of the role of low quality hay and silages in such situations. The article also highlights situations where low quality hay will not be enough to sustain the needs of the livestock.

Pastures in the early stages of growth are high in quality and attractive to stock. However, the low initial pasture availability (<400 kg/ha) restricts animals’ feed intake and animals will lose body condition even though feed quality is high. The situation is exacerbated by the physical loss of the old feed following heavy rain.  The rumen microbes also require time to adapt to the changed diet for animals to fully utilise it. When pasture response is slow due to drought and/or flooding, the period of low feed intake and weight loss will be increased.

Supplementing livestock on phosphorus deficient country with phosphorus during this time will remain important to allow the animals to make the most of the available energy and protein in the fresh pasture.

After floods, it is common to experience waves of insect borne diseases such as three-day sickness and Akabane.

Animals suspected to have three-day sickness are best left alone with access to clean water and feed. The impact of Akabane however won’t be observed until breeders calve, when deformities in the offspring’s skeletal structure can be seen.

While vaccinating against three-day sickness may be cost prohibitive in some circumstances, supplying livestock with a form of insect repellent may decrease the risk of the animals contracting insect borne diseases.

 

Poisonous plants are often among the first pasture species to germinate. Pigweed and button grass may dominate areas such as yards and laneways and pose a risk of poisoning to cattle. If cattle have access to a mix of pasture species, the risk is reduced. Other poisonous plants that grow quickly after heavy rain include crotalarias or rattlepods and Noogoora burr. Nardoo will also grow quickly after flooding. Symptoms of plant poisoning can be found here.

DAF have recently updated their advice for managing carcass disposals. In the updated factsheet, the importance of effective carcass disposal for the health of humans and the remaining animals are discussed, as well as factors to consider when deciding upon disposal options. Specific considerations for each of the flooded regions due to the variations in soil are also listed.

The flood will have distributed weed seeds widely in water, soil and through emergency fodder drops. If you have received donated hay during the flood, keep track of the locations where  the hay has been fed out and revisit them over the coming months and years to check for any new or strange plants. If you see plants that you are unfamiliar with, make a note of where you have found it and take detailed photos of any seed pods, flowers or identifying features. A step by step guide of what to collect including information about soil type and structural details of the plant can be found here.  By forwarding this information to your local DAF biosecurity officer, extension officer or shire weeds officer, the plant can be identified and advice for control or eradication will be provided if applicable.

Cattle ticks also flourish in warm and wet conditions. A large increase in tick numbers could cause issues in cattle that may not have been exposed to cattle tick previously and could increase the occurrence of tick fever. A preventative chemical treatment will help keep cattle tick numbers down until the animal can build its natural immunity to tick fever. Depending on your situation you may need to consider more chemical treatments at later musters or consider using some of the long-acting products. They may be more costly up front but will give greater control over a longer timeframe.

Chemical treatments will not prevent the occurrence of tick fever because the tick fever organism is spread by the larval stage of the cattle tick when it first attaches to the beast. Clinical signs of tick fever include depression, weakness, jaundice, fever, staggering and death. Keep an eye on your stock to determine if you will need to vaccinate when you have them next in the yards.

During flood events, the removal of soil via erosion and the depositing of large amounts of vegetative matter along fence lines and solid objects can create conditions that allow bacteria to flourish that would otherwise have been left concealed. Clostridial diseases are some of those that will survive in these conditions. Vaccinating animals with 5-in-1 will reduce the likelihood of stock contracting blackleg, black’s disease, tetanus, malignant oedema or pulpy kidney. Also recommended is the 7-in-1 vaccine, which covers these clostridial diseases as well as leptospirosis.

Vaccinating against botulism is also recommended as the toxin-releasing bacteria that cause botulism live in decaying matter. Botulism is not normally a problem on downs country south of the cattle tick line but the presence of large numbers of carcasses may increase the risk.

For assistance with sick or injured animals or specific advice on a vaccination program please contact the Australian Veterinary Association hotline 1800 621 918.

Business Queensland has an informative page regarding identifying stray cattle after natural disasters and another that outlines the documentation that may or may not be required depending upon the proximity of the owner to the animals in question.

Your health and safety and that of those around you is of utmost importance. There may be an increased risk of mosquito-borne disease in the flood-affected region. It is important to protect yourself against mosquito bites. Check out the Queensland Health website for information on preventing mosquito-borne disease: https://www.qld.gov.au/health/conditions/all/prevention/mosquito-borne

The bacteria that cause serious human diseases such as leptospirosis and swine brucellosis are usually contracted by humans through the exposure to the bodily fluids of an infected animal. However, leptospirosis can survive in water, food, or soil contaminated with urine from infected animals such as rodents and swine brucellosis can survive in the carcases of pigs. Make sure you cover all abrasions and injuries with waterproof dressings, wear appropriate footwear and use appropriate personal protection equipment when handling or disposing of carcases.

Soil-borne pathogens, such as melioidosis, may also become dispersed into new areas. After flooding, the bacterium that causes melioidosis can be found in the survey layers of the soil and in muddy surface water. It usually enters the body via cuts and sores in the skin, or via inhalation, and very rarely by ingestion of contaminated water. The best prevention is to wear protective footwear and gloves, cover abrasions and sores with waterproof dressings and wash thoroughly after exposure to soil or muddy water.

If you are not vaccinated against Q fever, additional preventative measures should be taken to minimise the risk of inhaling Q fever-causing bacteria.

Check the Queensland Health website for more information on these bacterial diseases: http://conditions.health.qld.gov.au/HealthCondition/home/topic/14/33/bacterial-infections

NQ Connect is providing mental health support for flood-affected Queenslanders. NQ Connect is a free phone and online counselling service connecting people to mental health services. NQ Connect can be reached on 1300 059 625, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For more information on flood recovery resources and available grants please visit futurebeef.com.au or daf.qld.gov.au, contact your local DAF office or call the DAF Customer Service Centre on 13 25 23, who will put you in contact with the best available person to answer your question. If you would like specific financial advice please contact your local Rural Financial Counsellor or Tahna Jackson (Farm Liaison Officer) on 0409 357 211.

Additional contact details for hotlines and helplines can also be found on the NW Community Recovery Directory.

As more information becomes available, we will add to this collection of resources.

Last updated: 8 April 2019