OMAHA (DTN) -- As a blizzard's huge snowdrifts melt in some areas of the western Midwest, and floodwaters slowly recede in Nebraska and some other states hit hard by flooding, agricultural losses are starting to come into focus.
Some farmers and ranchers still are scrambling to save cattle and add up the financial impact from weather disasters that first struck almost two weeks ago.
President Donald Trump has already approved requests from Iowa and Nebraska for expedited disaster declarations for areas affected by flooding. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds had issued a preliminary estimate of $1.6 billion damage to agriculture, levees, roads, homes and businesses. This followed the estimate of $1.3 billion from Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts for similar losses.
According to the eight-page disaster declaration request that was filed by Nebraska officials, preliminary estimates put agriculture losses from the flooding and blizzard near the $1 billion mark. State officials said March 20 that the numbers could continue to rise as more-detailed assessments are completed.
"Losses to agriculture, the major industry for the state of Nebraska, are already being felt, due to it being calving season," the Nebraska request said. "Thousands of livestock have perished either due to extreme cold weather, blizzard conditions, or extreme flooding. The loss of water supplies in many areas has caused large concern for large cattle, swine and chicken operations. The farms and feedlots could not be accessed due to floodwater and drinking water for the animals had to be trucked in."
NEBRASKA CATTLE LOSSES
So far, the volume of cattle losses in Nebraska is unclear, but was initially pegged at $400 million. There are questions about how to show documentation for lost cattle, particularly calves that may not have been tagged or recorded.
Greg Ibach, USDA undersecretary of marketing and regulatory affairs and formerly Nebraska's long-time agriculture secretary, said USDA would be flexible with paperwork for producers, including using pregnancy checks, bank statements or other documents to show the cattle values on a ranch or feedyard.
"We at USDA realize it's not a perfect world and this disaster makes it a more imperfect world when it comes to having documentation," Ibach said Monday afternoon in Lincoln while meeting with Nebraska agricultural leaders.
USDA also has opened grazing on Conservation Reserve Program acres in Nebraska. However, Farm Service Agency State Executive Director Nancy Johner said the window for haying and grazing is only until April 30, so she encouraged producers to take advantage of that haying opportunity now. Producers need to contact their local FSA office before moving cattle onto that CRP ground.
INCREASED TRANSPORTATION COSTS
Increased transportation costs from infrastructure loss are hitting feedlots to the tune of about $1 million a day, the written request from Nebraska had stated.
Infrastructure was hit hard as flash floods swept through much of Nebraska and parts of South Dakota, rapidly filling dozens of tributaries into the Missouri River above and below dams. More levees became compromised because of the swiftness of the water flow and rapid snowmelt.
The Army Corps of Engineers on March 25 said levees along the Missouri and Platte rivers have breaches in 54 locations. Roughly 350 miles of levees on the Missouri, Platte and Elkhorn rivers face extensive damage.
At the peak of the flooding in Nebraska, there were 79 highways closed -- almost 1,600 miles. Thousands of miles of county roads also were flooded. While repairs have already led to the reopening of some of those highways and roads, hundreds of millions of dollars will be needed to fix those damaged by the flood.
FEED SUPPLIES LOST
In addition, feedlots lost an estimated $36 million in feed supplies in Nebraska.
Private disaster aid continues to pour into all three states in various ways, including farmers sending hay and feed to help producers with stranded livestock. Convoys of hay bales have been streaming in. The Nebraska National Guard has been air dropping bales of hay to livestock in parts of the state.
A Colfax County, Nebraska, rancher boarded a Chinook helicopter with the National Guard on the morning of March 20, hoping to be able to drop hay to his flood-stranded cattle north of the Platte River in northeast Nebraska.
"We haven't done anything like this in 50 or 60 years," Nebraska National Guard Major General Daryl L. Bohac told reporters during a news conference in Lincoln that day as he related the story.
LITTLE TIME TO PREPARE
Some cattlemen had only a few minutes or hours to escape the water and limited time to move their livestock to safety. In the last two weeks, ranchers tried to dig out their buried cattle from the snowdrifts, or rescue their panicked cattle from floodwaters.
However, thousands of cows and their vulnerable new calves have been lost.
On March 15, the Nebraska State Patrol shared a Facebook video of what could be seen from a helicopter flying over the flooded areas. "From the Fremont area this morning. Each of those little islands had dozens of cattle on it, stranded with no place to go," wrote the Patrol. "Our thoughts are with our ag and livestock producers as they will be greatly affected by this."
Pete McClymont, the executive vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, told DTN the punishing weather from the blizzard and floods is creating a lot of stress for livestock producers.
"Even the best livestock managers are going to have issues in these types of conditions," McClymont said.
CONCERNS ON CLEANING UP
Farmers and ranchers will need to take care as they clean up from the floods.
Personal protective gear -- such as clothing, helmets, goggles or other garments or equipment designed to protect the wearer's body from injury or infection -- will be needed, said Chad Roy, professor of microbiology and immunology at the Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans. He spoke at a webinar put on by the AgriSafe Network on March 21.
"Contaminants from flood water is a witch's brew," Roy said.
Floodwaters in rural areas can contain many different contaminants from various sources. This includes ag chemicals, fuels, animal and human waste, and even decomposing livestock.
E. coli, for instance, can be liberated when animals die and can be in the floodwaters.
The Environmental Protection Agency has already announced it is testing drinking water in the Nebraska flood zone, including sampling private drinking water wells. Late last week, EPA said it had found high levels of E. coli contaminating standing water in Fremont, Nebraska.
Repeated exposure without protective equipment could lead to issues with infections, Roy said.
There is also danger in working with animals who survived the floods but remain stressed.
Aaron Yoder, associate professor of environmental, agricultural and occupational health for the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension, said those working around livestock need to be cautious when handling these animals because they have just gone through a traumatic event, and they may still be panicking. Get the scene stabilized, feed the animals and keep everyone safe, Yoder recommended.
Livestock owners who suffered animal or poultry fatalities because of the flooding may qualify for USDA's Livestock Indemnity Program, which would pay producers for up to 75% of their market losses. This is available for beef cattle, dairy cattle, hogs, poultry and other forms of livestock. (https://www.fsa.usda.gov/…)
The Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS) urges farmers to work with their insurance providers and take inventory of any damage. The department's website, https://iowaagriculture.gov/…, provides a list of resources for those impacted.
In Nebraska, the University of Nebraska has set up a website to provide resources, including places to donate or volunteer: https://flood.unl.edu/…
The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is ready to help producers affected by the blizzards and flooding who need hay, feedstuffs, fencing materials, volunteer help and equipment.
Callers to the department at 1-800-831-0550 should be prepared to share their name, contact information, type and number of livestock, location (including county), the type of assistance needed and how urgent the need is.
Nebraska Department of Ag staff will gather the information and identify needs to react accordingly, including the use of the National Guard and other state resources.
A list of disaster relief resources for Nebraska farmers and ranchers also is available online at: https://buff.ly/…. The website includes links to USDA Farm Service Agency programs, including the Livestock Indemnity Program and information from the Nebraska Extension.
OPERATION HAY LIFT
North Dakota-based nonprofit Farm Rescue is launching Operation Hay Lift. The group launched its efforts in 2017 in response to drought conditions, delivering hay to ranchers in need.
Farm Rescue has been coordinating a similar effort for Nebraska ranchers. You can find more information about Farm Rescue at http://farmrescue.org/….
USDA continues to encourage farmers and ranchers to contact their local Farm Service Agency offices to see what kind of resources are available to them. USDA stated it has an emergency loan program with up to $500,000 to help farmers recover from production and physical losses. The loan program is triggered by the federal disaster declaration that President Trump approved for Iowa and Nebraska. (https://www.fsa.usda.gov/…)
People wishing to receive or offer help can see more at (https://www.dtnpf.com/…), although people are also cautioned to be careful and protect themselves against scams or fraud.
Editor's Note: DTN Ag Policy Editor Chris Clayton, DTN Staff Reporters Todd Neeley and Russ Quinn, and DTN Associate Managing Editor Elaine Shein contributed to this story.
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