A flood-hit farmer's lament for his lost cows: 'It's the helplessness of hearing them bellowing'

It was the terrified bellows of his dairy cows as the flood waters rapidly rose around them that broke the Taree dairy farmer Rod Lattimore’s heart.

“It’s the helplessness of hearing them bellowing because they are obviously stressed, they are very panicked, and you cannot get to them to do anything for them,” Lattimore told Guardian Australia. “That’s the real heartbreaking thing. The loss is the loss, and as hard as that is to cope with it’s the helplessness and not being able to do anything.”

At half-past four on Friday morning, Rod waded out into boot-deep water to take his cows to higher ground. By the time he got them out of the paddock and on the way to the dairy, the water was up to his waist.

“I was whistling to them," Egli ha detto. “And there’s one block downstream from me – it’s only like a kilometre – and as I was whistling to my cows in the dark to get them out of the water they are in, the younger ones on the heifer block up the road could hear me whistling and all of them swam to me, which was pretty amazing against the flow.”

Lattimore, a third-generation farmer, managed to save all of his dairy cows but lost some 20 heifers. He has only managed to recover five of their bodies so far.

“I’ll get calls to say there is a heifer on this block in Taree, and you go to check on it and hope that it’s a live one and, sai, she might be distressed but we can get her home and save her," Egli ha detto. “And then you get there and you find that she’s drowned and she’s washed up there. And that’s sort of happened three times now, so it’s pretty heartbreaking.”

Further east along the Manning River, at Oxley Island, dead cattle lie twisted in trees, a snapshot of the violence that has savaged the area.

Three colliding weather systems have caused flooding chaos across swathes of Nuovo Galles del Sud, leading to dozens of communities being declared disaster zones and forcing more than 18,000 people to evacuate their homes.

The floods have been devastating for farmers along the state’s mid-north coast, many of whom lost property, crops and precious livestock in a matter of hours.

A Facebook Group – Mid North Coast horse/ livestock flood recovery – has been set up to help farmers find lost animals and has so far gained more than 4,000 membri.

Donald Hood, co-owner and veterinarian at Taree veterinary hospital, said he had watched helpless as cows were washed away.

“I live in Cundletown and I sat and watched cows flooding down the river, already dead," Egli ha detto. “And there is nothing you can do.”

Of the animals that survived, Hood said he had been working around the clock to treat hypothermia, cuts and abscesses. Many horses and cattle are also suffering from damaged feet, having spent days stranded in water.

Hood’s colleague and vet hospital co-owner, Rob Brudar, has had better luck, rescuing a calf on Saturday and a cow yesterday morning who had been washed into the surf.

“The calf had been in the river for three days and had horrible pneumonia … We had no idea where it had come from," Egli ha detto. “It came out the entrance at Old Bar, the surf was wild, you wouldn’t have wanted to be out there.

“He survived and made it on to shore. The fact that he’s are alive on the beach is a miracle in its own right. He’s on a farm just out of Old Bar. We heard from the owner of the property and he said he is going really well.”

While the cow rescued on Monday ultimately didn’t survive, Brudar said it was heartwarming to see the community rally together to try and save its life.

“We had 10 guys trying to lift her, people trying to come around and help her and feed her, and it was just really good to see. The feat of getting a 700kg cow 500 metres up the beach and into a trailer; I don’t even know how we did it. But we did it because we all worked together and we weren’t going to give up on her.”

Others have found livestock washed up in residential back yards.

For some farmers, the floods are a breaking point.

Il 2019 bushfires and unrelenting drought, which finally broke around a year ago, forced many, like Lattimore, into debt. Adesso, the floods threaten to undo months of toil and slow repayments, knocking back the recovery by at least two or three more years.

“I was 10 years old when we had the 1978 alluvione,” Lattimore said, his voice breaking. “But back then, farms were smaller, family farms … but now, sai, we’re going to milk twice as many cows for a fraction of the margin … Whether it’s droughts or floods that come along, we’ve got no reserves in the pricing system to keep farms operating. So this on top of the drought, it’s going to finish a lot of farms.

“There is no resilience in the agricultural system to recover from adversity.”

A dairy farmer and Kempsey shire councillor, Sue McGinn, agreed that the floods needed to spark a bigger conversation about the price we are paying for fresh food and dairy products.

Her Macleay Valley property, east of Kempsey, flooded after water breached the Belmore River on Friday. While she and her husband, Brett, haven’t lost cattle, they fear dormant flood waters will starve their grass, destroying their cow’s main food source and preventing them from planting winter feed.

No feed means no milk, and no milk means no cashflow. Add to that road closures, which have prevented dairy collection trucks from reaching the farm and forced the couple to make the difficult call to pour fresh milk – their livelihood – down the drain.

“I’m certainly not asking for charity," lei disse. “But any business that wears the financial impacts to put out a litre of milk needs to be paid well enough to continue to farm so that litre of milk still gets on the kitchen table.

“You can do all you can and … [make] what you do and efficient and productive, but I don’t think any business can sustain any big, large-scale whacks – even the best of us can’t sustain continual attacks. The scale of this and given we have just gotten through a drought, it zaps your spirits, but it certainly hurts your bank balance.”

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