In Louisiana: Cattle, dairy industries facing difficult recoveries

South of New Orleans, damage from Hurricane Katrina is primarily due to water. North of the city, most damage is from wind. Wind or water — pick your poison.

Asked to describe the rural area south of New Orleans, Jason Rowntree doesn't flinch: “Hell. It looks like Hell.”

The Louisiana Extension cattle specialist was in hard-hit Plaquemines Parish on Sept. 18. From Port Sulphur, La., south, “it looks like someone picked everything up, wadded it into a ball, and threw it on the ground. I saw tricycles 25 feet up in trees. Everything is gone.”

Near Empire, La., the levee is breached on the Gulf side, allowing saltwater into a large, adjacent marsh. Until the levee is fixed and pumps begin working, floodwater will remain.

“Normally, we run a lot of beef cattle in that marsh area. If they're still alive, they're stuck there surrounded by saltwater.

“Highway 23 is the main road through that area. About halfway down the peninsula south of New Orleans, you hit 4 feet of water. They're still launching boats off the highway.”

Stranded cattle

There are over 1,000 head of cattle stuck on the west Gulf levee.

“It's very difficult to get water to those animals. Feed was donated by many generous producers and companies from all over the nation and taken to them by airboat. But those cows are still suffering and dying because they have no water. Cows that thirsty aren't going to eat.”

State and federal agencies are working together to get fresh water to the cattle, according to Ashley Rodrigue, Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry public information director. Troughs are being brought in for the levees. The plan is for helicopters to dip huge “buckets” into the Mississippi River and then carry the fresh water to the troughs.

“I spoke with Bob Feltner, who heads the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association,” said Rowntree. “He said they're trying to get a barge over there to pick up those cows.”

The problem is the barge is south of the marsh area near Venice, La. It can't be reached except by boat. And from the nearest boat launch, it's a 60-mile ride.

“It's a mess. The idea now is to get the National Guard to take helicopters and pick up the barge. They'll take the barge to an area where boats can hook up and pull it to the cows.”

With so much land still under flood, it's unknown how many animals are gone. Rowntree estimates 11,000 cows in the St. Bernard/ Plaquemines Parish area have disappeared.

“I've seen a few cows down there penned up. Some of them started on the east side of the Mississippi River. When the hurricane came though and the storm surge hit, the cows ended up on the west side of the river. That's astounding.

“Towns there have been crippled. Some of the people there have nothing left but cows. They're putting all their effort into keeping their animals safe. The folks who have been fighting this since the storm hit haven't been on television. You don't see the farmers and ranchers working to save what they can.”

For Louisiana cattle, not including fencing or lost materials, there will be a loss of “well over $10 million. That's for immediate cattle losses and things like that.”

Louisiana dairies

The bulk of Louisiana's dairy industry is north of Lake Ponchatrain in the state's ‘Florida’ parishes (once a part of the Republic of Florida): St. Tammany, Washington, and Tangipahoa. According to 2004 LSU AgCenter numbers, 308 Louisiana dairy farms produced milk worth $77.4 million. In the Florida parishes alone, last year more than 250 farms produced milk worth over $62 million.

“There aren't any dairies in the New Orleans area and northeast in St. Bernard's Parish,” said Gary Hay, Louisiana Extension dairy specialist. “But there are a lot of beef cattle. Many of those animals didn't survive the storm or died stranded on levees.”

The dairy industry, mostly located 30 to 50 miles north of Lake Pontchatrain, was more fortunate.

“By the time Katrina hit the region, wind speeds had dropped enough to not cause the catastrophic devastation like around New Orleans,” said Hay. “If the storm had come through about 20 miles to the west, the dairy industry would have experienced a much worse situation.”

Even so, Rodrigue says, total losses to the state's dairy industry will top $21 million. “Loss of animals and milk will run above $5 million. Damage to dairy parlors and equipment will be around $11 million. Add in future losses, rebuilding, forage and animal health concerns and the total losses will exceed $21 million.”

Hay says conditions for dairies have improved since mid-September. In Louisiana dairy country, “we've had a lot of trees and fences downed. There wasn't a lot of widespread structural damage, although some individual farms did suffer quite a bit of building damage.”

For days after the hurricane, dairymen were operating on generators. Problems became evident when generators proved incapable of powering both milking and cooling equipment.

“Luckily, Dairy Farmers of America brought in a lot of generators,” said Hay. “Within a few days, the power needs seemed to calm. With only a few exceptions, every operation had its own generator.”

Still, when trucks couldn't reach the farms, a lot of milk was dumped.

“The biggest problem is still a lack of electricity. It is coming back on, though, even in some of the hardest-hit areas. By (Sept. 25), I hope 90 percent will have their power back and be able to put away the generators.

“Things have gone from confusion to a point where I believe the industry is beginning to stabilize. The main things to be tackled in the next few weeks are getting fences repaired and ryegrass planted.”

Ryegrass planting in the Florida parishes will be delayed at least a month. Dairy farmers were just beginning to get fields plowed when the hurricane hit.

The pastures currently flooded in south Louisiana — some in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes “are 12 feet underwater,” said Rowntree — are a long way from being usable. For those covered with saltwater, it will be at least a year before a forage base can be established again.

“Even without that news, it's tough because most operations were lucky to get two hay cuttings this year,” said Rowntree. “It's been too dry. With the current conditions, the third cutting is out. We were already looking at potential hay shortages before the hurricane. Central and north Louisiana have been bone dry too. Hay is already being bought.”

Except for one, all of Louisiana's dairy plants are operating. Most are running over capacity and milk is again reaching areas just outside New Orleans.

“Distribution was hurt for a while, but that's eased up,” said Hay. “Baton Rouge has grown by 150,000 people, so the demand is still there, too.”

One of the problems the dairy industry will face over the next year is many cows weren't milked properly after the hurricane. That will lead to future health problems in the herd.

“This is a huge concern,” said Hay. “The dairy cows — particularly those that were ‘fresh,’ or just starting lactation — weren't fed and milked like they should have. That will lead to less production and will make them a little harder to breed. That will end up having a big impact on dairy, I believe.”

However, Hay suspects the biggest problem will be the continuing national malaise in the dairy industry. For many Louisiana operations, hurricane damage will simply be the final straw.

“The traditional family farm milks anywhere from 80 to 150 cows or so. They've been under economic pressure for 10 to 15 years. This kind of thing disrupting income is economically devastating. It will have a serious impact on the industry. We're worried we'll have dairies go out of business just because they're tired of dealing with the economics.

“It's already happening. I have a confirmed report of two herds that sold last week. A couple other reports that haven't been confirmed say four other herds were also sold. We'll see more of that.

“For several years, Mississippi and Louisiana have lost something like 10 percent of our herds annually. Over the next year, I suspect we'll double that percentage — maybe even more. A lot will depend on how quickly dairies can get bridge loans and financial help.”

A broad swath of Louisiana's agriculture has been hurt or destroyed. Row-crops and livestock aren't the only casualties.

“(Louisiana Agriculture) Commissioner Bob Odom is very worried about the citrus industry,” said Rodrigue. “That's all in Plaquemines Parish where a lot of land remains flooded. The citrus groves will definitely experience losses.”

Much of the state's sugar cane was also blown down. Some of it is beginning to stand back up but there's a fear sucrose levels will be lower.

“Our nursery industry also took a hit and our small commercial fruits and vegetables did, too. Those who currently have plants in the ground won't have a crop to take to farmers' markets and grocery stores.”

Strawberry farmers were preparing to plant for next spring's early crop when Katrina arrived. “They experienced a lot of damage — the materials and rows were ruined. Much more will be spent on labor in getting those things back in shape.

“Also, many farmers wonder if there will be a market to sell to. If they produce a crop, who will buy it? So much of their crops go to grocery stores and markets in New Orleans.

“Will anyone be in New Orleans to buy it? And if consumers are there, will they have the means to buy it”

Adding to the miseries, lodging for clean-up crews is impossible to find.

“The hotels are full,” said Rodrigue, who works at the Department of Agriculture headquarters in Baton Rouge. “We have people sleeping on the floors of our offices.

“People working for USDA and for the U.S. Forest Service are all over the building. Last night, I came to check on some things in the office. Each office had a cot and person in it.”

Even with the shocking scenes around them, all interviewed focus on the kindness and hard work they've witnessed.

“Without question, the greatest story to come out of this is the way people have come together,” said Rowntree. “They've worked for the greater good…It's been an amazing thing to see. Producers have really helped each other.

“I hope your readers understand many of these farmers have nothing left. Some of them have only the clothes on their backs. But they're still working to help their neighbor and save their herds. The good Lord is watching over us.”

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