Under animal welfare legislation, you are responsible for the welfare of your stock after the fire. Animals should be located and examined as soon as it is safe to do so.
Animals with severe injuries or where recovery is unlikely need to be destroyed for welfare reasons. A veterinarian will usually attend to assist with stock assessments and destruction or treatment recommendations, but in large fires and depending on access this may not happen immediately. If an animal needs to be destroyed (e.g. shot), and you can do so safely and humanely, you do not need to wait for a veterinarian to do so. To avoid voiding your insurance cover if you must do this yourself, have a witness present, take photographs to show the approximate numbers of burnt or destroyed stock and to show why stock needed to be destroyed, and contact your insurance company as soon as practicable.
If a veterinarian is able to return to the farm for follow-up assessment and the welfare of the stock is acceptable between visits, mildly injured stock may be able to be monitored and reassessed several days later. Caring for these stock is essential and includes providing feed, water, shade and veterinary treatment such as pain relief as required. If you do not have capacity to provide this care, you should not attempt to retain injured animals.
Injured animals can be divided into four groups:
- for immediate slaughter
- for salvage by slaughter at an abattoir or knackery (if practical)
- keep and nurse with intent to retain or slaughter after fattening/finishing
- no further action required, where injuries are very mild.
Identifying stock for destruction or slaughter
Detailed state government guidelines for assessing burnt stock are available, an example of the Victorian government guidelines can be found here.
In general, burn injuries can be difficult to judge if you have not managed burned animals before. Animals that initially appear unharmed may have severe injuries that become obvious over coming days, especially burns to hooves and lower legs. Follow the guidelines to prevent unnecessary suffering by identifying and destroying these animals early. Monitor stock for developing injuries regularly for the first few weeks, even if they initially appear to be unaffected.
Immediate destruction is required for animals that are:
- unconscious or barely conscious
- unable to stand or walk due to injuries, burns or hoof damage
- extensively burnt (more than 10–15% of skin burnt) with deep burns or skin splitting
- showing major swelling of legs
- showing difficulty breathing due to smoke inhalation.
Salvage slaughter is appropriate for animals that do not require immediate destruction and are ‘fit to load’. The condition of their hooves and ability to stand on a truck is an essential part of this assessment. Even if external damage is minimal, these animals may have decreased meat quality and may not meet quality assurance standards.
Destruction of livestock
Destroying and disposing of your own stock is often traumatic. Where possible, ask for help from neighbours, friends or veterinarians. Removing yourself from the job, once decisions about which stock must be destroyed have been made, can result in a less traumatic experience for you. Any person destroying stock using a firearm or similar should be licensed, trained and competent, otherwise use a professional such as a veterinarian or stock inspector/ biosecurity officer.
Cattle can be euthanased with a firearm by shooting from the front just below the poll, as shown in the diagram. A rifle (0.22 magnum or larger calibre) can be used either at a distance or close to the injured animal. A shotgun (#4 shot in a 12, 16 or 20 gauge) can be used only if you are close to the animal.
Alternatively, a captive bolt can be used, but as this method is not always 100% effective it should be followed by cutting the neck to allow the animal to bleed out.
The proper anatomical site is on the intersection of two lines each drawn from the outside corner of the eye to the base or top of the opposite horn (2013 AVMA Euthanasia Guidelines), or half-way between two parallel lines drawn laterally: one across the poll and the other from the outside corner of each eye (Gilliam et al 2014).
For more information see: www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/8/4/57/htm
Sheep can be euthanased with a 0.22 calibre long rifle or larger. Again, captive bolts (with bleeding out) or a shotgun can be used if you are in close proximity to the sheep. The correct way to shoot a sheep is from behind the poll (poll method, B) or from the front (frontal method, A), as shown in the diagram.
Stay safe when shooting livestock:
- Do not hold the muzzle of a gun directly against an animal’s head; allow some space between the head and the gun or the barrel could explode
- If a high-calibre weapon is used, the bullet could pass through the animal’s head and strike whatever is behind the animal; ensure nothing vulnerable is behind the animal and use a backstop
- Watch for thrashing limbs when the animal falls after being shot.
Disposal of livestock
Efficient disposal of stock killed in a bushfire is important for public health and amenity reasons. Carcasses decompose quickly and access for heavy machinery to handle dead stock can be difficult after fires. Your local municipality will usually
take responsibility for burial of dead stock, although you will usually need to transport carcases. Alternatively, you may arrange an earthmover yourself if road access can be achieved and on-farm burial is suitable.
Before undertaking your own on-farm burial, consider effects on the environment, statutory controls, logistics and safety. Site selection is important and should take into account soil type, sufficient distance from water courses and infrastructure, and be away from houses and view of the general public. Detailed advice is available, but in general a trench for carcass disposal should be four to five metres deep (staying at least two metres above the water table) and carcasses covered with two metres of mounded backfill.
Nursing mildly injured stock & reassessment
Mildly injured stock that are fit to load and whose injuries will severely constrain their productive life may be suitable for salvage slaughter (rapid dispatch to a local abattoir). You will need an immediate kill slot at a nearby abattoir and prior agreement from the abattoir. The veterinarian assessing stock and your stock agent can often assist with arrangements.
Mildly injured stock likely to return to productivity and with well-managed welfare can be nursed, either on-farm or at agistment on soft, unburnt ground. The most important limitation to this is labour and resources. It will take time to medicate, feed, water and monitor these animals. Daily reassessment is required to detect animals whose injuries are worse than expected. Burn injuries are extremely painful, so pain relief is important for these animals and should be discussed with a veterinarian who can advise on appropriate products registered for other conditions in livestock. Other treatments, including antibiotics, may also be appropriate in some circumstances.
Heat stress can occur from direct fire exposure and from the high ambient temperatures in a bushfire season. Heat stress can lead to reduced appetite, reduced efficiency of nutrient absorption from food and reduced immune system function, as well as death in severe cases. Provide shade and monitor for these effects.
If you do not have the labour availability and resources to successfully nurse mildly injured stock, it is not appropriate to keep them. If their injuries mean these animals are not suitable for transport, destruction may be required. For transport guidelines, see Meat & Livestock Australia’s publication Is the animal fit to load?