Flood in One Direction and Drought in the Other

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Flood in one direction and drought in the other. Managing disasters.

Dr. Matt Poore

I have dealt with a lot of natural disasters in my time on this job, but never have I dealt with a severe drought and a historic flood at the same time. We have made great progress working with producers impacted by the flood in the East, so attention is now turning to the drought in the West. Drought has been developing over the summer across the mid- and deep-south, and has been progressively moving into Western North Carolina. We have been in moderate drought most of the summer in the 6 far western counties, but now that area has expanded with 25 counties, and essentially all the mountain and foothill region, in at least moderate drought. Couple this with drought in the upstate of South Carolina, about 2/3 of Georgia, and all of Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and this stacks up to be the worst drought in the region in many years.

On the other hand, in the Coastal Plain region of North Carolina and South Carolina it has been a very wet season, especially starting in late summer, and that was topped off by Hurricane Matthew which dumped from 10 to 15 inches of rain across the region causing severe flooding of most river systems.

Drought and flood are two very different types of disasters with the impacts of flood being fast and often unexpected, while drought slowly develops and you can see it coming. Also, while floods are very damaging in the flood plains (a small percentage of total land area), the heavy rain causing them is much less of a problem on upland, and actually on average often helps agriculture as much or more than it hurts. While some folks are helped by hit and miss storms during a drought, it tends to be more uniformly damaging to agriculture as it hurts the upland which is most of the land area.

Managing flood

The flood waters from Matthew have receded and it actually has been a month since we have had any rain. That is helping dry things up and harvest of upland row crops is ongoing at a rapid pace. Beef cattle producers have assessed damage to their fences and pastures, and many have planted winter annuals on areas that were killed by the flood, or that were simply not planted before the flood.

Producers need to continue to be diligent about scouting pastures for debris that could have toxic components, and especially poisonous weeds. We have had cases of poisoning by toxic weeds from a producer grazing crop residues that had been flooded, and this will be an ongoing issue as cattle reenter flooded pastures and cropland. Making sure that animals have access to a high quality mineral supplement and plenty of forage and/or hay with sufficient nutritive value for the livestock in question is critical. One thing we know about flooded pastures is that they can be contaminated with pathogens, and especially with spores from Clostridial species, primarily Clostridium perfringens which causes overeating disease. It is therefore critical that livestock grazing in flood impacted areas have been vaccinated recently for Clostridial diseases.

At this point most producers have assessed their hay that was impacted by flood water. It is appropriate to feed to dry part of the hay that was not flooded as long as cattle are not forced to consume the wet and rotting portion of the bale. Hay that was severely damaged by flood (generally hay that was impacted by more than 1 foot of flood water) should be disposed of by burning or composting. If they have not done so yet, producers that lost hay, or who had flooded pastures should contact the Farm Service Agency to report or update their losses.

Anytime forage supply is disrupted, farmers should calculate a hay budget so they know if they have extra hay they can sell or if they need to buy hay. We don’t expect a general hay shortage in the Coastal Plain, but some farmers were severely impacted and lost most of their forage. These farmers should contact their extension agent for help calculating a hay budget so they can purchase hay early in the season.

Managing drought

A lot of thought needs to be put into the response to drought, and the thought process is in three steps. First, you should be prepared for a drought even when receiving normal rainfall amounts. This can be accomplished by doing a good job of rotational grazing management, maintaining an appropriate stocking rate, and maintaining an emergency feed supply. These steps will help producers deal with short-term or moderate drought.

Once a severe drought is upon you, it is time to take more extreme steps to manage the situation. First, you need to pull cows from pastures to avoid over grazing once a critical grazing height has been reached (2 inches high). Second, there should be a good culling plan. We need to make sure that all open cows, old cows, and any cows with significant defects are sold once you have to start feeding hay. Even though the cow market is not strong right now, it still does not make sense to keep these lower value animals because doing so will be at the expense of the production of the younger and more valuable cattle. If you don’t regularly check cow’s teeth, that is a very effective way of gauging how many years of productive life they have in them.

Next, the producers need to obtain their winter feed supply. This will involve determining the number of cows, yearlings, and bulls they will maintain, estimating their total hay need, and inventorying the feed on hand. This approach will allow the producer to have a good idea of how much feed they need so they can get it bought early in the event when it can be found closer to home and at a more reasonable price.

Additionally, it is critical to mention that cows need to be managed well just like they are during good times. You should be aware of critical body condition scores, make sure they have access to a good mineral program, have access to high quality drinking water, and get cows off pasture as much as possible to keep them from severely overgrazing the land.

Finally, once the drought breaks (hopefully in this case during the winter of 2016-2017) producers need to be aware that it will be several years before pastures recover enough to support the number of cows they had before the drought hit. Also, sometimes pastures will be hurt bad enough that they need to be renovated, so in those situations they need to plan on planting a summer annual on the land and then to come back with perennial forages, like tall fescue, once the planting time comes in late summer.

Specific issues that have come up recently with the current situation are as follows:

Alternative feeds. The hay supply in western NC and the upstate of SC is very short. Couple that with drought and a limited hay supply in the surrounding states and we are in for a difficult time finding feed to get through the winter. While most farmers are set up to feed hay, it is also possible to provide some or most of the feed for cows from silages or concentrates. Using these feeds takes more labor and management than feeding hay but are often a better overall feed value. Your extension agent has a simple calculation tool designed to get you a good estimate of the total amount of feed you need to be finding, and can help you balance rations, so contact them for help.

One critical concept to understand is that wet feeds have a lot lower feed value than dry feeds, just because of the amount of water they contain. For example, hay is usually 88% dry matter and 12% water. Corn silage on the other hand is usually 35% dry matter and 65% water. Thus, we need to consider that water when deciding which is the better feed value. Hay at $100 per ton is a lot better value than corn silage at $50 per ton. The same is true of wet byproducts like brewer’s grains and wet corn gluten feed. At the current time brewer’s grains can be bought in the region at $35 per ton which is a reasonably good value on a nutrient basis due to it’s high level of protein and energy. However, it is important to calculate your labor costs. If you are large enough to have a loader and feed mixer to feed this byproduct it is a good value, but if you have to move it by hand it is very labor intensive and you might decide you are better off with a more expensive but easier to handle feed

In the end , most producers need to find hay they can get bought and brought in. At this time there is still some hay for purchase in the region, and you can check the Hay Alert website (http://www.ncagr.gov/hayalert/) being managed by NCDA&CS, as well as other lists that are maintained at the county level and by extension in other states. Later on, after local hay is gon,e we will have to move hay in from other states, and that will be a challenge because there is a limited supply in many of the surrounding states. Again, contact your extension agent as they are aware of efforts underway to help identify hay supplies for producers in need.

Livestock Forage Program from USDA Farm Service Agency. It is critical that producers contact their Farm Service Agency office to sign up for the Livestock Forage Program (LFP). The LFP is designed to help producers with funding for emergency feed supplies needed as a result of drought. It is triggered by various categories of drought, with the first eligibility based on being 8 weeks in a D2 (severe) drought shown on the national drought monitor maps. As the drought worsens then more relief is provided. The funding levels vary on class of livestock involved and will vary by county so it is critical for you to visit the office so they understand how much help will be provided and the schedule for funding being provided.

Impact of smoke inhalation on livestock. We have had several questions in recent days about the effect of smoke on livestock that are in the drought region. A number of wildfires, especially in the higher elevations, are causing severe air quality issues in many areas. Breathing heavy smoke is very detrimental to health of livestock just as it is to your health. When fires are very close and livestock are in the path of the fire they should be moved to a shelter area and many of those have been set up at fairgrounds and other public facilities around the region. If the fires are not very close, then the affect of smoke on them is dependent on how long they are exposed and how thick the smoke is. The smoke will cause them to have irritation in the eyes and the respiratory system, and the best way you can help with that is to make sure they have access to plenty of high quality drinking water. Exposure to smoke can stress the respiratory system to the point that it turns into respiratory disease even several weeks after exposure, so keep a close eye on them for at least several weeks to allow them to recover. Oftentimes, moving cattle or stressing them in any way increases their respiration rate, so that should be avoided unless there is a direct danger of them getting caught in fire.

Impact of fire retardants on livestock health. We have had a number of questions about the fire retardant that is being used to fight fires in the mountains, and the possible collateral contamination of adjacent pastures. These fire retardants contain water, fertilizer, thickeners and minor components including surfactants, bactericides, stabilizers and corrosion inhibitors. These fire retardants have been extensively tested to make sure they are safe for humans and the environment including wildlife. The major concern would be poisoning from non-protein nitrogen (the fertilizer component) and it would take a high intake of the material to cause that problem. Producers need to move cattle from areas with significant visible fire retardant, but should not be concerned about pastures with a visibly low level of this material.

Poisonous plants. One thing that often happens this time of year, especially in the mountains when grass is short, is the consumption of poisonous plants. As the season progresses the livestock graze the available grass until it is gone, and then they have no choice but to start eating the plants they normally would avoid. Common problems in Western NC include White Snakeroot (also known as Milk Sick), Jimson Weed and Acorns. Once the grass is gone it is critical to move livestock into a sacrifice area and feed them hay before they have no choice but to eat poisonous plants.

Drinking water availability. An immediate concern for many farmers in Western NC is the availability of drinking water for cattle. In many areas streams and springs are drying up, and if the farmer does not have access to a well or public water system they have a serious problem facing them. It is very expensive to haul water to cattle for the long-term. Hauling water is a short-term solution that has to be done, but once you start hauling water you need to seriously work to drill a well or hook onto another reliable water supply. Furthermore, producers should contact their Soil and Water Conservation District office to discuss with them the potential for cost-share supported development of reliable water on their farm. There is a lot to think about when dealing with disasters like drought and flood. Your best source of information, advice, assistance and access to other local resources is your local Cooperative Extension Livestock Agent so give them a call!