Hurricane Harvey Wreaks Havoc on Texas Cattle as Ranchers Hope Flood Waters Recede
By Tony Dreibus
Cattle ranchers in southeastern Texas had been moving livestock out of areas in the path of Hurricane Harvey for several days before the storm made landfall, but losses are likely as few anticipated the sheer breadth of the storm.
“Most of the producers started last Monday moving cattle out of the coastal region,” said Texas A&M Extension specialist Tom ‘Andy’ Vestal. “By Tuesday or Wednesday they were asking producers who had cattle along rivers and watersheds to move their cattle. A lot of these guys have dealt with high water but nothing like this. Who could’ve imagined 40 to 44 inches of rainfall?”
About 1.2 million beef cows are in the 54 counties that have been declared disaster areas due to Hurricane Harvey, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The total is a “conservative estimate” and encompasses 27% of the state’s herd, according to Texas A&M University livestock economist David Anderson.
Texas is the biggest cattle and calf producer in the U.S. and has the largest feedlot herd at 2.42 million head, according to the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Gross income in 2015 from cattle sales and marketing totaled $11.5 billion, according to the Department of Agriculture.
The number of cattle deaths has yet to be determined and still may be rising, but it’s likely going to be high as the National Weather Service forecast more than 50 inches of rain in some areas. So far, 25 inches has already fallen in some counties, the agency said.
“Ranchers are hoping for the best right now, but there are certain areas where there are going to be some losses,” said Dennis DeLaughter, a market analyst at VantageRM.com, who also owns a farm near Edna, Texas, 50 miles from the center of the storm when it was at its strongest. “All you can do is open the gates and hope the cattle are smart enough to seek higher ground. You can’t round up all the cattle, so there will definitely be losses. How big the losses are going to be – I don’t know.”
DeLaughter said his ranch suffered some structure damage and some parts of his farm are cut off so any cattle losses are unknown, but he suspects his livestock herd won’t be affected despite wind gusts up to 90 mph because there are several high spots on his ranch.
The storm was expected to be devastating, but its rotational cycle and the amount of water that fell surprised even the most accurate weather forecasters. Early on, the storm was expected to be a so-called 100-year flood, then became a 500-year flood and is now what some officials consider an 800-year flood.
Texas A&M’s Vestal said it’s too early to venture a guess on how many head of cattle will be lost to the storm, but he said livestock owners can and should take photos, identification numbers, and have a third party verify death loss and file a claim under the USDA Farm Service Agency’s livestock indemnity program that reimburses producers for up to 75% of market value. It may not pay full price for the animal, but it’s better than getting nothing, he said.
Texas A&M, along with several industry groups, have programs in place to help producers mitigate losses when natural disasters strike.
The university has shelters for livestock and companion animals in 36 counties and has already mobilized its county Extension agent strike team – five to eight Extension agents who will roll into the affected areas and offer help to producers who’ve suffered losses.
Texas A&M also has a state animal response team that will assist with human resources and natural resources and arrange for helicopters to help round up cattle, for example. Local agents will be on hand to help producers in their counties, Vestal said.
The Texas Department of Agriculture is calling for donations to its State of Texas Agriculture Relief (STAR) Fund created with monetary donations from private individuals and companies that may be used to assist farmers and ranchers in rebuilding fences, restoring operations, and paying for other agricultural disaster relief.
That may come in handy as it’s expected that hundreds if not thousands of miles of fences will be destroyed by the flooding as debris moves through affected areas, Vestal said.
Industry groups on a conference call Monday expressed worry about fencing, which will be a “significant” part of monetary losses, he said.
“A number of cattle have been moved to higher ground, but we have lost a lot of fencing,” Vestal said. “We certainly have a lot of low-lying areas where … we have trees and logs that will take out a lot of those fences, so it’s going to be a lot of trouble recreating the infrastructure we have for the cattle.”
The Texas Animal Health Commission plans to deploy its Horseback Emergency Response Team, a group of volunteers who ride their own horses into affected areas when it’s safe to wrangle cattle, locate dead livestock, and gather video documenting the devastation, said Thomas Swafford, a spokesman for the TAHC.
The team is waiting for waters to recede before heading into the flooded areas, he said.
“We’ve been mobilizing crews,” Swafford said. “The catastrophic weather event is making it hard to respond right now, and we don’t want to put our people in harm’s way.”
Jeremy Fuchs, a spokesperson for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Ranchers Association, said it’s too early to tell how widespread the damage will be because it’s still raining and travel isn’t recommended.
Texas A&M’s Vestal said producers he’d heard from said they’re concerned not only about their herds but also infrastructure items such as hay, feed, and fencing. Until flood waters recede, however, the scope of the devastation is unknown.
“The industry groups mentioned that many of their producers are saying they’re not able to get back into the areas to see what kind of condition the cattle are in, so we don’t have a full picture at this time,” he said. “In fact, it will be quite some time before we get back to normalcy.”