Dairy farming has always been a roller-coaster ride for Linda and Barry Morgan but having their farm destroyed by the 2018 St Patrick’s Day bushfires was almost the tipping point.
Barry, Linda and their children heroically saved a lot of their dairy and beef cattle, but many were killed. Their paddocks, their fences, their sheds and their machinery were wiped out; their spirit and emotional wellbeing were left in tatters.
Their house survived and Linda says if it had gone up in smoke, they wouldn’t have stayed around to rebuild.
“If it had burnt, we would have just walked away,” she said.
Instead, they have transformed their former beef farm at Elingamite North into a dairy and are just getting back on their feet.
Adding to the distress, at the time of the blaze they were engulfed in an ongoing dispute with the new owners of their previous dairy share farm. They are now no longer involved with that property.
March 17 was horribly hot and windy, but when Linda went to bed there was no sign of fire.
Barry was at a friend’s place but shortly after 10 pm their daughter Kate rang with reports of a fire.
“I looked out the window which was away from the fire and it was bright red from the glow. There was no power. I couldn’t see anything except red,” Linda said.
Within minutes Barry arrived home, saying they would be lucky to have five minutes to escape.
Linda was prepared with tubs of documents, photos, stock records and bills ready to go.
“I put the tubs in the Mini and had it running but was so disorientated I went inside and couldn’t find the keys. So, I took everything out of the Mini and put it in the ute then realised the Mini was running.
“Barry grabbed his tennis rackets and put them in the ute and by then the fire was already at the chook shed.
“We couldn’t see anything and didn’t know which way the fire was coming. There were twigs and embers and smoke, it was just a bright red glow and so smoky.”
They turned left but quickly realised they were driving into the path of the fire.
“Barry was in the ute in front and did a U-turn so I did the same. We went over all types of branches but we made it back to Cobden.”
With family help, they returned to try to move their cows to safe ground, both the dairy cattle on the share farm and the beef on their own property.
“When we got to the corner, everything was on fire,” Linda said.
“We got to the cows on the share-farm property but we couldn’t get to our farm. The wind was so ferocious and the fire was going so fast.
“We saw one house on fire and there was fire on both sides of the road. We had to drive into one paddock which was on fire to try to get the cows out.
“We were screaming, trying to get them under the tunnel or near the dam.”
They did what they could with the cows at the share farm, losing only three in the herd at that time, and then turned their attention to three tractors.
While moving them to safer ground, their son’s friend’s car ignited.
The fire jumped over the dairy and the house and landed in the calf paddock.
The wind made it turn hard right and it took out another house, before being pushed left with another wind change.
The fire split and also engulfed their 32 ha out-paddock at the Cobrico, claiming more cows.
Their sons rode motorbikes to the farm, using effluent water to douse spot fires near the house.
When they got to their farm, everything was gone except the house.
“All the hay sheds, water pipes, troughs, fences, pastures, hay, silage, all the machinery, our seed drill, our wrapper, rake, all the tools,” Linda said.
“We had five sheds and lost them all. We lost maybe 50 to 70 beef cows, 30 to 40 calves, eight bulls; we had 400 milkers and we now milk 221.”
Getting back to milking was difficult and more animals had to be euthanised by the Department of Agriculture as they struggled to overcome injuries.
“We took about four days to milk and when we did the milk was red and the cell count was like a million,” Linda said. Their processor paid for the milk even though it was tipped out.”
They worked alongside a vet to milk to determine which cows could be milked.
As the smoke cleared, the community rallied, with Linda describing the support as amazing.
A counsellor visited, the shire, their insurance company, bank, Blaze Aid, processors and locals all pitched in, even if the Morgans didn’t want to see people or do anything as they suffered through the aftermath of the trauma.
“We fell apart and our whole business fell apart but the bank manager said you can’t leave this burnt with nothing on it, it’s not going to be worth anything.”
Barry didn’t want to milk and neither of them wanted to turn their home beef farm back into a dairy.
With the previous share farming no longer an option, they had to come up with another plan.
From May 5, all 70 empty cows were sold, 200 cows were split between three host farms and about 100 were put on an out-paddock, although not long after they had to be moved.
As the 100 were calving those three farms were full, a possible solution emerged during discussions with Blaze Aid when it became apparent a neighbouring farm could be leased.
The 200 hosted cows went back into the herd in June when the leased property was up and running. Due to the difficult conditions, there were ongoing health problems for some of their cows and their condition had deteriorated.
By mid-July the farm was full and the Morgans tried to sell 80 spare cows without success.
Their beef farm had once been a dairy, but hadn’t been used that way for a decade. Linda and Barry wanted to keep it that way, but they had no other options so they called an old friend, Darren Matthews, who had built the rotary dairy on the share farm.
Darren had retired but Linda asked if he was up for a challenge.
“He came out that night with a torch and said ‘Okay, I’m going to do one more dairy.’ ”
They needed a new vat, a feed system and cups but within a few weeks and $80 000 later they had it running and were able to secure a dairy licence.
They were milking about 80 on the home farm, 200 on the leased land but that came to an end when their staff member resigned.
“We brought all the cows here; we waited until the yard was full and we took the rest to the abattoir. We hated doing that; they were beautiful cows but no-one wanted them and we couldn’t fit them.”
The cows were previously milked in a rotary dairy, adapting to their new environment in an 18-swingover wasn’t easy.
“We have to have two people in the yard to encourage them to walk in,” Linda said.
“Once the first cow goes in there’s no dramas but we obviously don’t have a lot of front cows.
“We can only fit in 12 to 14 at a time and they’re not getting any better at it.”
The 222 ha farm had to be direct seeded in April.
“Every paddock was burnt; there was nothing,” Linda said.
“We got another loan from the bank to do permanent pasture. We left it as long as possible to July before putting the cows back on the paddocks.”
In the meantime, they set up a temporary feed pad area; a big triangle of dirt with rectangle feeders.
“Every cent we got from the milk cheque went into the farm, particularly buying feed and re-fencing with the help of Blaze Aid,” Linda said.
They got the dairy licence in July and have built-up solid production.
Their beef cows are now on the leased farm, the out-paddock is used for raising heifers and cut for hay and silage.
They lost a lot of calves, partly as a result of the conditions but also due to the difficult times they experienced mentally.
Things are looking up. The vets are happy with the remaining herd and the Morgans changed processors and continue to bring the farm back to life.
They are on a payment plan to get a new silo, they have put in a new bore, brought a big second-hand vat and had sheds replaced.
“The people did the work for next to nothing and Blaze Aid saved us; not just the fencing but in having a Saturday night dinner where they’d cook for the farmers. They were amazing,” Linda said.
One of the volunteers who came to help, a 67-year-old retired dairy farmer, has now stayed on as a part-time employee.
They have received insurance support to build a calf shed and machinery shed and are working with the insurance company for an overall payout.
As the first anniversary approaches, the Morgans are turning the corner.
Without realising the date, Linda booked tickets to see Muriel’s Wedding in Melbourne on March 17.
“I’ve obviously moved on,” she said.