By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, April 12, 2019
COLUMBUS, Neb. — As the Midwest and Great Plains braced for the unexpected April ‘winter’ storm system, the same region was still walking the long road of recovery from the March blizzard and catastrophic flooding. Four weeks after the ‘bomb cyclone’ hit the Midwest and Plains, the hardest hit areas are just beginning to see evacuation orders lifted.
I was there two weeks after the height of the flooding, and the losses and generosity were both obvious, and both are continuing as flooding remains in the potential forecast while continued convoys of hay, supplies and other donations are pouring in.
During my brief visit two weeks ago, many roads were still closed to non-emergency traffic. Other roads, bridges and infrastructure were so severely damaged that some areas were still partially or completely cut off. Railroads were still halted, and six ethanol plants were shut down.
Untallied bushels of corn and soybeans stockpiled on farms for future delivery were under floodwaters or damaged by them. Land that had never seen flooding previously was still under water.
The Nebraska governor’s office was estimating nearly $1 billion in agricultural losses — not including millions in damage to buildings, homes and equipment. Livestock losses were being estimated at over $400 million, and crop losses both in storage and by prevented plantings were estimated at over $400 million.
While USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has backed away from a figure he gave Fox News three weeks ago — about one million cattle being lost in the region due to both the blizzard in western Nebraska and surrounding areas and the catastrophic flooding in central and eastern Nebraska as well as Iowa, southern Minnesota, southeast South Dakota and into Missouri — it’s not hard to imagine a number close to that when new spring calves are reported to far surpass any livestock class in the number of losses.
Feedlots and dairies in the region talk about losing average daily gain and milk production in the wake of deep snow, floods and mud. Transportation of commodities into and out of the region is encumbered with dairy farmers, for example, reporting milk trucks taking 90-mile detours and milk being dumped.
In some areas the flood waters were so damaging even the deeply-buried fiberoptic cables have been unearthed as damaged dams and levees unleashed water and ice that in turn damaged bridges, roads and railroads.
In fact, 200 bridges in Nebraska, alone, will need to be inspected, and this has created issues for trucks and rail cars that normally traverse them, creating additional costs getting commodities out and supplies in.
“This thing has long fingers,” said Bill Thiele, a dairy producer near Clearwater, Nebraska. While he describes the losses at his family’s 1900-cow dairy to be “mostly inconveniences,” he sees what his neighboring dairy and beef producers are dealing with.
He operates the third-and-fourth-generation dairy with his three brothers, a sister-in-law and two nephews, and they have another generation coming on.
“We are three miles from Clearwater, and there is destruction along 90 miles of the Elkhorn, which had tremendous flooding, and by the Clearwater Creek, where bridges were lost. We are right beside the Clearwater Creek and are very fortunate the new bridge held,” Thiele describes how 8-inch-deep frozen creeks like the Clearwater raged 15-foot high as the water built up behind the ice like a big dam and unleashed its fury.
“We produce three tankerloads of milk per day. We have no storage on site, we just hoped to keep trucks coming and going to us,” he reflects, noting that they had to shut down for an hour, but that pales in comparison to others. He tells of a nearby dairy having to dump milk for six days straight.
“Milk was definitely dumped in this state. We don’t know how much as the milk haulers eventually established routes going an extra 90 miles per load to make it between farms and plants,” Thiele recounted. “We don’t know of plant closures, but there were points where people may not have gotten to work. One of the first things our Governor did was to lift the weight restrictions, and he worked with the Departments of Transportation and Highway Patrol in other states to synchronize that.”
Thiele tells how one dairy four times his size on two sites just south of Columbus near hard-hit Rising City and Surprise, Nebraska, hired planes to fly employees to locations where they could then pick them up in vehicles to get to the dairies as it was more than one week before the main highway 81 was opened up.
He’s heard about the losses of ranchers and family members – people he knows – who tried coaxing cattle out of fields but had to get themselves to higher ground when the emergency warnings went out as the Spencer Dam broke.
“Cattle are mixed everywhere with bridges out,” said Thiele. “It will take some time to tabulate where cattle are, what was lost, and what’s misplaced. It’s hard to fathom these images of guys loading 40 or so dead calves.”
To fathom it, one must understand that many of these miles of creeks and rivers leading to catastrophic flooding are normally wide and shallow streams that can be crossed easily, but as the floodwaters came up rapidly and dams and levees were breeched by icebergs the size of cars, beef cattle herds in protected areas near streams during calving season, became stranded.
He said the damage to infrastructure in Nebraska even affected the dairies in California “because grain and soymeal and distillers (DDGs) go from here in Nebraska by rail to California.”
With railroads knocked out and ethanol plants shut down, those dairies had to find feed and trucks to get feed out there. “It quickly makes you realize all these things have long fingers reaching out very quickly,” said Thiele.
Without the railroad to bring corn to the ethanol plants and transport the ethanol and DDGs out, at least six ethanol plants were forced to shut down. This has widened the basis for producers in Nebraska and affected usage and pricing, not to mention actual losses of stored commodity.
Thiele notes that while the news reports indicate much cropland under water for seven or more days, some of this land has not seen waters fully recede to begin cleanup or even think of getting ready to plant.
Dairies, he said, would be affected by alfalfa losses. While hay stocks are damaged on many farms and ranches, the alfalfa fields and grasslands also sustained damage from both flood waters and the huge chunks of ice propelled by the rapid snowmelt and precipitation that turned those little streams into raging rivers.
In the midst of it all just two days after Highway 81 re-opened, debris piles were a combination of equipment, hay and even cattle carcasses carried miles on raging waters even two weeks after the worst of the flood had passed Columbus.
While driving through Columbus, a stop in town found the Nebraska Farm Bureau, Nebraska Cattlemen and Nebraska Pork Producers all coming together to provide a grilled meal of pork loin, burgers and hot dogs for volunteers, farmers and town folk on March 24 – a scene oft repeated in other towns in the following days and weeks.
“We wanted to thank the volunteers and help the people suffering with flood damage,” said Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Cattlemen. He noted that USDA Under Secretary Greg Ibach, a former Nebraska Ag Secretary, would also be on hand to talk about the damages that can only be fully appreciated from the air.
Suffice it to say that federal assistance won’t do much, and a special disaster aid package for 2018 and 2019 damage across the country failed to pass the Senate last week.
Existing programs like USDA’s Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) have caps that many farmers’ losses will far exceed. Programs like Crop Insurance won’t cover grain lost in storage. Few have sufficient private insurance for these losses, and many areas affected are not in flood plains, so flood insurance is not available.
Jay Ferris with Nebraska Farm Bureau lives near Seward, Nebraska and had some damage from the Loup River. But it was the Niaroba, Elkhorn and Missouri River convergences that saw the worst of the flooding miles from their respective shores as levees were breeched, dams destroyed pushing the floodwaters and icebergs into these lesser shallow creeks that became deep rivers.
A little-known fact from sixth generation farmer and radio personality Trent Loos, is that Nebraska has more miles of river than any other state. Of course, these rivers are not what most of us think. They are miles of wide and shallow streams – maybe 8 inches to a foot deep as historical channels for melting snow.
As reported earlier in Farmshine, it was the combination of Storm Ulmer’s ‘bomb cyclone’ in early March and the abundant accumulation of snow and ice pack driven by the heavy precipitation that wreaked havoc on systems as icebergs the size of automobiles and several feet thick were propelled over banks by the fast moving runoff, hitting Platte County especially hard and putting over 60 Nebraska counties and over 40 Iowa counties under emergency declaration by state and federal authorities.
“The biggest tragedy was in the calving beef herds wintered close to water where there are big trees that keep them out of the wind,” said Ferris.
“The feedlots lost efficiencies, but our cow-calf operations lost a lot of their babies. That’s the saddest part,” his wife Tammy echoed as they prepared the grills for the meal offering to flood victims and volunteers.
“It is incredible the amount of generous donations of hay, fencing and other supplies, as well as money and work crews to clean up and rebuild,” said Bill Luckey, a member of the National and Nebraska Pork Producers boards when we caught up with him at the Columbus, Nebraska hay drop location. “The generosity from all over the country has been amazing.”
As we watched the Nebraska Air National Guard load four round bales to feed stranded cattle owned by Drew Wolf of Richland, Nebraska, we met Jay and Kim Schilling from the southwest corner of the state. They had just brought in 23 round bales, and while some of it was being loaded for airlift, two more semi’s showed up with needed hay and corn fodder from Iowa.
“We are one of the few counties not declared an emergency in our state, and we wanted to help because we know they would do the same for us,” said Kim Schilling. “We know how much those cattle eat.”
As it turned out, the rancher whose cattle were being fed by that particular airlift belonged to a friend of Jay’s college roommate at the University of Nebraska. They had called that friend as soon as they heard how bad the situation was to the east.
Luckey talked about the flooding around Columbus. He farms six miles east of town and described his operation as “lucky.” The floodwaters came within inches of his hog barn. Active in both the Nebraska Pork Producers and Nebraska Cattlemen Associations, he was busy helping wherever needed after the floods.
“They asked if I could help do this hay drop, so I’m helping Brian Palmer who is running this thing,” said Luckey, who in addition to raising hogs, has a cow-calf herd and did lose a few calves in the stress of it all.
“Even though we don’t know the numbers, everyone in this area has some cattle and hog losses,” said Luckey, noting that the Fremont area, especially had some hog losses. “Roads are covered with water, mud and debris. There’s an awful lot of mud. We’ve seen an awful lot of livestock stress that will continue in this mud. Every 10 to 20 years, we see flooding. In the early 1990s, there was severe damage in some of these parts, but most of us have never seen anything like this.”
What we really need, said one observer, is bridge builders. Transportation is critical here.
As Luckey finished his sentence about the toll the floods have taken on transportation, a train whistle in the distance grew louder. As it passed us by, standing there at the Columbus hay drop watching the chopper lift hay for stranded cattle, Luckey said: “That’s the first train whistle we’ve heard in over 10 days. That is surely a nice thing to see. That looks like a load of coal coming in from Wyoming.”
He talked about the damage to railroads, and I soon learned that the SiDump trucks I had seen going up and down the roads I had traveled the afternoon and evening before were working in earnest for the railroad hauling rock to place under the tracks to fill holes left by the raging waters.
“They say that the closing of the railroad cost Union Pacific $1 million per hour,” Luckey remarked. “Some of our roads were closed just so the equipment and dump trucks could move freely to get the railroad up and running again. It’s our lifeline.”
Southeast of Columbus closer to Sioux City, Iowa, things were bad. Even the I-29 corridor from Sioux City to Sioux Falls was shut down in places 10 to 14 days after the flood. Thiele told of a dairy south of Sioux City with one-fourth of its land under water, and the alfalfa all under the transported ice – not to mention the same conditions for grass that would be grazed or hayed for beef cattle. Hay will be an ongoing need.
“Standing water and ice will ruin that multi-year investment in alfalfa, which is absolutely the background ingredient and feedstuff for dairies here,” said Thiele. “Add to this the direct and indirect losses in planting delays and prevented plantings this spring, and that means less feed.”
To gain perspective of the levels of water 11 to 15 feet off the ground, seeing the arial photos of standing water just under the tops of center pivot irrigation systems tells the story.
“There is an incredible amount of snow in South Dakota and we’re still getting snow in Sioux Falls and west. That all has to melt yet,” Thiele observed. “I’m no meteorologist, but that water, that moisture, all has to have somewhere to go.”
Whatever the circumstances that created the perfect storm for catastrophic floods, one thing can’t be denied — the amazing force of water and the destruction and debris it leaves in its wake. Riverbottom pasture and hay ground is filled with sand bars, fields even above a normal flood line are not getting spring or normal warm temperatures. By April 15 to 20, farmers here want to be in the field, Thiele explained.
“But with this much saturation, standing water and debris, some land will go unplanted this year,” he said, adding that a normal first cutting of hay occurs a couple weeks before Memorial Day. “That’s not likely to happen either. If all else goes okay, we’ll be lucky to get by with just one less cutting and less tonnage while some areas will have to replant.”
He talks again about the “long fingers” of this thing, as Nebraska alfalfa grown near him goes to dairies in Michigan.
The response from the agricultural community has been overwhelming. Truckloads — actual convoys of trucks loaded with hay, fencing and other supplies — have been heading to the flooded regions from Pennsylvania, Ohio, the Delmarva area, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, Florida, etc.
Tale after tale is told on various facebook pages, like Ag Community Relief, of the generosity brought to the region.
“It’s a tough deal,” said Thiele, recounting stories of families that have lost everything on farms and in towns. This is a total farm economy here, and the farm economy for the last four years running has already been bad. We are already in a long-term downcycle. There hasn’t been a lot to be optimistic about. What we need is for the trade agreements and other underlying problems to be finalized. For long term recovery, our markets have to improve so farm families have a chance.”
“For those who are against our cattle and dairy operations, take a look at our faces. You’ll see very tired faces. These farmers and ranchers are caring and doing absolutely everything they know to do, even risking their own lives on a tractor to try to get cows out of a field before a flood takes them away. All we want as farmers and ranchers is to have a real chance.”
Yes, Mother Nature will do what she will do, but it is agriculture policy that needs attention and it is the generosity of fellow farmers and ranchers across the country that helps those in the thick of a really tough deal.
No matter what Mother Nature dishes out, Rural America responds with a can-do spirit. Farmers and ranchers nationwide are stepping in to help those affected by the storms and floods in the Midwest with prayers, hay, feed, supplies and financial donations. The appreciation is great.
Here are some contacts for those wanting to help:
Nebraska Cattlemen Disaster Relief, 4611 Cattle Dr, Lincoln, NE 68521. Donation forms are available online at https://nebraskacattlemen.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/donation-form.pdf
Nebraska Farm Bureau Foundation’s Disaster Relief, PO Box 80299, Lincoln, NE 68501-0299 or visit nefb.org/disaster. Also, the Farm Bureau’s Ag Disaster Exchange matches hay/supply donations with need https://www.nefb.org/ag-disaster-exchange.
Nebraska Dept. of Ag Hay and Forage Hotline at 402.471.4876 and http://www.nda.nebraska.gov/promotion/hay/index.
Ag Community Relief at agcommunityrelief.com
In Iowa, this website connects those who need with those who have available hay or grazing land: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/online-services/haynet-tipnet/index
Read about some of the generosity here
https://www.facebook.com/groups/894013340738541/ and here