Farmers and ranchers in the Central Plains can’t seem to catch a break. After experiencing a long and drawn-out winter that caused historical flooding along the Missouri, Mississippi, and Platte Rivers, it seems the flooding incidences and damages won’t be over any time soon.

Just as recently as July 8, farmers and ranchers have dealt with floods that have come quickly and wiped away hopes for haying, planting, or giving cattle a chance to recover from the storms and flooding that happened a few months prior.

“We’ve definitely had delayed planting,” said Darren Hibdon of the Frontier District Extension in Ottawa, KS. “There’s still acres of soybeans that are being planted or replanted, corn has either been replanted or been replaced with another crop, and flooding damages have cost losses of a lot of hay ground.”

More floods

In addition to still being on the road to recovery from the effects of the spring bomb-cyclone, more flooding has hit parts of Nebraska and Kansas.

Central Nebraska was struck with flash flooding on July 8 that left Kearney underwater and water up to the edge of banks in Grand Island, said Pete McClymont, executive vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen (NC).

Dawson County, KS, received 5-7 inches of rain during the most recent flood. The Dawson County Extension office reported reflooded fields underwater, creeks full to the bottom of bridges or spilling over, and roads inaccessible.

Additionally, with the high volume of snowpack in the Rocky Mountains melting into the Platte River, McClymont doesn’t foresee water receding until late August.

“It’s not over, that’s for sure,” McClymont said.

Nebraska has more miles of rivers and streams than any other state, at almost 80,000 miles, due to its close proximity to the bottom of the Rocky Mountains. The Missouri River is one of the only deep channel rivers in the state so when water levels rise quickly, areas near rivers and streams are highly susceptible to flooding.

“I think the safe way to sum it up is that cow/calf producers are still way behind,” McClymont said. “This is going to impact them not only this year, but next year and maybe years to come.”

With the high water table and saturation of land, many of the Sand Hills meadows—prime haying locations—are underwater and can’t be hayed.

“The grass is lush and the summer heat is going to make it grow, but July and early August are prime haying season and hayers are behind if they can even get to it,” McClymont said.

Looking back on Central Plains’ devastating spring - 2

March 2019 was a month for record climate anomalies.

Spring’s bomb-cyclone

Starting in mid-March, an intense storm swept through the central U.S., delivering heavy rain that caused ice jams and rapid snowmelt, resulting in historic flooding records.

“The weather didn’t start in February or March—it started in late fall,” McClymont said. The fall experienced so much moisture that the land was saturated going into winter and that, combined with below-freezing temperatures that froze the ground, meant there was nowhere for the heavy rainfall to be absorbed, causing the floods.

“These poor calves had such an extended period of cold and wet winter that producers couldn’t keep up,” McClymont said. “The extreme cold, the flooding—it’s been all the worst variables happening at the same time.”

Troy Walz of the Custer County Extension in Nebraska said, “We’ve spent years dealing with drought, so we kind of understand how to prepare. But when we get to a point where there’s historical flooding, it’s very hard to think about how to prepare for that.”

Impacts on cattle

McClymont said although cows have a mature system and are able to withstand severe weather, calves have a much more difficult time. With the calves exposed to bad winters since the beginning of the year, “having a calf randomly die is not uncommon.”

He also said that even if the calves do survive, the effects of the winters will stay with them forever; health and lung issues prominent.

Hibdon said the Frontier District counties in Kansas have seen a higher incidence of foot rot with the flooding, as well as an increased onset of pinkeye—although it hasn’t yet been confirmed if pinkeye is related to the severe weather.

In northwest Nebraska, some ranchers were unable to reach their pastures to check their cattle as late as early April, McClymont said.

Regarding the recent flooding, McClymont is thankful it is summertime and the freezing temperatures of the winter are no longer present. However, he said that although it is warmer, net effect is still the same.

“It’s going to be 90 degrees or higher plus the humidity soon; a healthy animal gets stressed by that let alone these calves that have been dealing with this since they were born.”

Looking back on Central Plains’ devastating spring - 1

The Central Plains have been under siege by the weather and seemingly perpetually underwater. This has led to delayed or completely prevented plantings and difficulties for cattle producers. Both cattle and crops can drown. Without air, the submerged plants can die, fade in color, decompose and wash away. Debris can then get entangled in remaining plant stubs or concentrate at various areas of the field. Pictured: Flood waters in farm fields, 12 miles north of Council Bluffs, IA, on June 24, 2019.

Other impacts

In addition to the health impacts on cattle, infrastructure was greatly damaged by the floods. Besides flooded roads and bridges, destroyed fence lines were one of the most common cases of damage. McClymont told of a Nebraska rancher who had 200 acres of land flooded with sand and silt—fence repairs will easily lead into next year, not including the dirt and debris to be cleaned up.

The Kansas Cowley Extension office said the biggest issue the surrounding counties are facing is sourcing feed. There was a high incidence of bales of hay rolling into creeks and being washed away in addition to the poor pasture conditions. Feed is being sourced not only across the state, but neighboring states as well.

Although McClymont said there was really no completely accurate way to verify cattle losses as it’s not mandated to report losses unless applying for federal assistance, the losses were great. Nebraska has about 1.94 billion beef cattle. About 5.1 million head are finished in Nebraska feedyards, which also saw the effects of the flooding. One Nebraska yard lost 1,200 head of feeder cattle swept away by a channel cut by the Platte River.

Resources and recovery

There were several programs offering assistance to those affected by the flooding, including the Livestock Indemnity Program, which covers losses for livestock from a disaster. However, the NC decided to take matters into their own hands. The Monday after disaster struck in the spring, the association created a tax-deductible disaster relief fund. Money was donated to the fund from all across North America and included an anonymous donation for $75,000. Total donated funds were more than $1.6 million. Proposals to be granted assistance through the fund were accepted until May 31, and applications are currently being reviewed for rewards.

Looking towards the future

“Because the snowpack in the Rockies was at least 140 percent more than normal, and knowing there is still a decent amount of snow in the mountains, we expect flooding on the Platte River to continue another 30 to 45 days,” McClymont said.

The cell over central Nebraska on July 8 dumped up to 10 inches of rain, which in itself is a new challenge.

“In the beef industry, we are used to blizzards, droughts and severe temperatures,” McClymont said. “What was unusual about the bomb-cyclone was because it was so cold in the ground and the rivers were iced over, floods started. Everything happened at one time. But people are resilient—especially in agriculture, and we will get through it.” — Anna Miller, WLJ editor

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