Some displaced Katrina cattle grazing in Alabama

Some displaced Katrina cattle grazing in AlabamaBy CONNIE BAGGETTMobile Register
With thousands acres of pasture flooded and winter feed stores lost along the Mississippi and Louisiana coast, several hundred surviving cattle displaced by Hurricane Katrina are gaining weight on farms in south Alabama.”We got 128 head of cattle straight off a truck from south Louisiana,” said Escambia County resident Rodney Rhodes. “They had been stranded on levees with no water and no feed for a couple of weeks before they were rounded up and shipped. They got here on Oct. 1 in pretty bad shape.”As farmers in Louisiana and Mississippi struggle to repair homes and recover from fierce tropical storms that killed up to 80 percent of cattle in some areas, surviving cattle are grazing on pastures in northern Louisiana, Mississippi and even in Alabama. Area Extension Agent Buck Farrior estimated some 250 cattle from the storm strike area are wintering in Escambia and Conecuh counties.Rhodes said he got involved after hearing that Katrina’s impact was horrific on cattlemen like Earl Armstrong in the parishes south of New Orleans.”They didn’t get any of the calves out,” Rhodes said. “Mr. Armstrong had 1,000 head of cattle on islands at the mouth of the Mississippi, and they found 130 they needed to send to grazing some where. They found some they corralled up where they were and sold at auction. We got 128 that survived.”Armstrong said the cattle, mostly brood cows, had survived brutal conditions and arrived starved. Several orphaned calves were so near death, the farmer told Rhodes that if they lived, he could have them outright. For the cows, Rhodes said, he will get paid a per-pound fee for weight gained by them and any calves born between now and August, when Louisiana farmers hope to be far enough along in the recovery process to bring cattle home or buy new herds.Jason Rowntree, Louisiana State University Extension Service beef specialist, said the cattle industry in Plaquemines Parish, where the cattle Rhodes is tending came from, “is just gone. The pastures, the barns and farms — it’s just gone. Flat. Any farmers still here are trying to get their homes repaired and cleaned up. We estimate in the worst areas we lost 10,000 head in Katrina, then 10,000 more in Rita.”Katrina made landfall on the Mississippi-Louisiana border Aug. 29 as a strong Category 3 storm. Rita hit Texas and Louisiana on Sept. 24, also as a Category 3.Rowntree said farmers with enough operating capital could be back in production by spring as fences and barns are repaired or replaced. With a good amount of rainfall, pastureland could recover by spring, he said.But, he added, most farmers already had loans to pay off, and “losing this much at once will make it difficult. Some moved their surviving herds to north Louisiana, but most just liquidated their animals. Trying to make things work now – it just doesn’t pencil up. The smaller farmers are the ones that need help, and they are falling through the cracks.”Rowntree said he estimates a $50 million loss for the cattle industry in the state from the storms. Last year, the industry was a booming $405 million in the black.”The industry in the South will never be the same,” he said. “It’s scary.”In Mississippi, cattle farming along the coast didn’t fare much better, though the mortality rate due to the storm was lower, according to Jane Parish, a Mississippi State University Extension Service beef specialist.Parish said saltwater intrusion from storm surge damaged some pastureland, but a lack of rainfall after Katrina was just as damaging. Many farmers had already planted rye grass for winter grazing and the dry days after the storm delayed the growth.”We don’t have good numbers yet, but many cattle have never been located,” Parish said. “We are advising farmers to look hard at their herds and decide if they can afford to feed them through the winter. They can cull some and reduce their herds. It’s a hard choice. They all have fences to repair and the feeding will be a large upfront expense. Most are concerned with getting their homes repaired first.”William H. “Bill” Nungesser, a cattleman in Plaquemines Parish, said his house is one of only about 10 farms left standing in his area. He guessed that about 6,000 homes in his community were washed away.”We are waiting on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore the levees,” Nungesser said. “I helped Earl Armstrong round up a few hundred of his cattle. He lost at least 50 percent of his herd.”Before Katrina, Nungesser said, he had 60 elk that he raised so that he could harvest velvet from their antlers. After the storm, he found 43 and brought them home. He said farmers used airboats, borrowed oil booms and even had help from Blackhawk helicopters to round up cattle stranded in the floodwaters.—Information from: Mobile Register,

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