John Widdowson saw the forecast during the week of March 10 and made a plan to keep his cattle safe in his operation near Gibbon, Nebraska. He moved his cow-calf pairs away from the nearby Wood River and into pastures usually not utilized this time of year, and he also left them plenty of feed.
Despite the planning, he still lost baby calves during the “bomb cyclone” weather system that produced heavy rain and a blizzard with 4 inches of snow and 65-mile-per-hour winds or higher. This all occurred on frozen soils, forcing massive amounts of water into streams and rivers that were not able to handle it.
“It was just a perfect storm with both the rain and snow,” Widdowson told DTN. “We were out there during that first night, but you couldn’t do anything with the horrible winds.”
Much of the state of Nebraska was affected by this challenging weather, from the heavy rains causing extensive severe flooding in the central and eastern part of the state to a raging blizzard in the western half of the state.
Some areas of central Nebraska producers saw both.
A PERFECT STORM
Widdowson and his family farm 3 1/2 miles north of Gibbon, a central Nebraska town of 1,800. He has 300 commercial cows in his cow-calf operation. The Wood River is between town and their farm.
With pastures and cattle facilities away from the river, the Widdowsons didn’t see any damage from floodwaters. But water did cover the roads around them and isolated them for three days. Everything to the south of them was underwater, he said.
They were well into their calving season when the storm hit; Widdowson estimated about 70% of the calving was done at the time. While the cattle were moved away from the river, calves still drowned with water sitting in places like terraces, and they were also trampled in the extremely muddy conditions.
“We had seen the forecast and tried to mitigate the situation,” he said. “If we hadn’t done that, we would have lost even more (cattle).”
Widdowson said the heavy rains and flooding alone wouldn’t have been that bad of situation by itself, but combined with blizzard conditions, it made for a treacherous combination. He had five guys, including his two sons, out trying to care for the cattle, but he also had to be sure the guys were safe during the dangerous weather.
Before the storm, they took 16 baby calves away from their mamas and put them inside to make sure they would live. After the storm, two guys spent the next 48 hours attempting to get the pairs back together by placing them in pens and in the chute, even milking the cows by hand, trying to get the pairs to bond once again.
All but one cow took their calves back, he said. The abandoned calf was put on another cooperative cow whose calf didn’t make it through the storm.
“This was extreme work,” Widdowson said.
In the two weeks since, he and his crew have “lived with these cattle” as they continue to check on the cattle at least twice a day. The lingering effects of extreme stress can be seen, with calves showing some illness, mainly pneumonia and scours.
Widdowson has moved his cattle into nearby cornfields, a fresh, clean environment for his cattle. Most of his cattle have bounced back well, with a handful of calves still under the weather.
While he did lose some calves, Widdowson said he feels fortunate compared to other cattle producers who lost part of their herds, pastures, facilities, homes and miles of fence in the widespread flooding.
ISSUES IN SANDHILLS, PANHANDLE
Just about 100 miles to the northwest of Widdowson, Loup County in the Nebraska Sandhills also saw the destructive effects from the weather. Deb Starr, Loup County Treasurer located in Taylor, said the Loup River did not flood, but the massive amount of water did cause some major issues in the county.
“I know there was some calves which were lost in the blizzard, and the county roads sustained some major damage as well,” Starr said.
The frost has just begun to come out of the soils in the region, so roads are still difficult to get across right now, she said. The real effect of the storm may not be known until the soil dries some, so the situation in Loup County can be assessed better.
Starr said crop producers in the county are also concerned about the amount of moisture in the area’s soils. Many are worried they will not be able to do any fieldwork in the coming weeks as spring planting is rapidly approaching, she said.
Aaron Berger, University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Extension beef educator located in Kimball in the Nebraska Panhandle, said his home area of the southern Panhandle didn’t see the calf losses that the northern Panhandle saw with the severe blizzard and flooding from the White River there. Minimum losses in the overall Panhandle region could be 5% to 10% of the calf crop, he said. According to the Census of Agriculture, in 2012, there were 1.1 million head — or 20% of the state’s cattle population — located in the Panhandle district of Nebraska.
The region will see the impacts of the March blizzard on calves for some time. One beneficial action done in recent weeks was the opening of Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres to Panhandle cattlemen, he said.
“This could be the most beneficial thing for cattle producers, to get their cattle out of wet, saturated soils and into these clean soils,” Berger said.
NO EFFECTS ON MARKETS
While the severe weather will have a long-term effect on cattle producers hit by the weather, there may not be any influence on the cattle markets.
Rick Kment, DTN analyst, said there is no question many cattle producers were affected by the adverse weather. The question will be how many head were affected, something still not really known.
“Regardless, we really haven’t seen much of an effect on the feeder and fat cattle markets in the days since,” Kment said.
Kment said, similar to a hailstorm damaging crops in just one area of the wider Corn Belt, the calves lost in Nebraska are just part of the total cow herd across the country. While the state is home to more cattle than people, the nation’s cow herd is spread out in many different states not affected by this weather, he said.
The additional costs to cattle producers, both cow-calf and feedlots, is something to keep an eye on, Kment said.
Additional feed was utilized for cow-calf operations during the time before and after the storms; this could force some to purchase more feedstuffs, in addition to what they might have received as hay donations from other people in the cattle industry within the state and from other states.
Feedlots are also having to spend more money moving cattle. This could be in the form of moving cattle out of flooded lots or having to take different road detours to go to market with many rural roads and highways closed, he said.
WEATHER: A MIXED BAG
What Nebraska cattle producers pummeled by the recent bad weather could use now is some drier conditions and no spring winter snowstorms. DTN Senior Ag Meteorologist Mike Palmerino said there is both good news and not so good news in the weather forecast.
On the positive side, Palmerino doesn’t believe there will be any significant spring snowstorms in line for western Nebraska anytime soon. In addition, the heaviest rainfall this week has shifted more into the southern and eastern Midwest along and south of Interstate 80, he said.
“This doesn’t mean the northwest areas that bore the brunt of the blizzards and flooding will get nothing, it’s just that the core of the heaviest rains will be off to their south and east,” Palmerino said.
The not-so-good news for the flooded areas of central and eastern Nebraska, southwestern Iowa and into Missouri is they are still at risk for more flooding. Frequent episodes of moderate-to-heavy rainfall in the region could keep already flooded areas from drying, he said.
Russ Quinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter @RussQuinnDTN
Source: Russ Quinn, DTN
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