Some Texas farm-related woes linger months after Harvey

Published on Thursday, 7 December 2017 10:38 - Written by LIZ TEITZ, Beaumont Enterprise

BEAUMONT, Texas (AP) - For days after Harvey flooded her Sour Lake neighborhood, Deanna Coburn's farm was silent, without its usual chorus of bleating goats and crowing roosters.

The Beaumont Enterprise reports her chickens fled to the highest parts of the roosts, the ducks struggled to keep their head above the strong current of water pouring out of Pine Island Bayou, and her goats and pigs took refuge on stacks of pallets and hay, barely above the water.

Once the water receded, she hoped the worst was over, but months later, she's still worrying about Harvey's effects on Cozy Critters Farm. She checks the goats' eyelids daily for signs of infection and her chickens took weeks to start laying eggs again. When it rains, they're skittish and scared. She's lost several goats already, and isn't sure how many more she'll lose.

Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25.

Across Southeast Texas, Harvey's toll on animals and agriculture is still unclear. Jefferson County Agriculture Agent Allen Homann said he still can't estimate how many animals died in the floods, and how many died later even after they were rescued by boats from swamped pastures.

The impact of the storm on land will likely cause future problems. Flooding damaged grass that ranchers were relying on to feed their cattle through the fall, forcing them to spend more on hay and feed, Homann said.

Business will hurt, too. Some who lost cattle may decide to sell the rest of the herd and leave the industry, while others will need to spend money to replenish their numbers.

"It's been two months of just trying to get by and keep the cattle going," Hamshire rancher Harold Clubb said. "Basically what we're going to have to do is just try to get by until spring."

As Kirby, a goat bottle-fed as a kid, rubbed his head against the fence, looking for attention, Coburn held his face still and checked his eyes, looking at the colors of his eyelids. "If it's white, it's too late," she said. The color indicates a parasite causing anemia.

Barber pole worms, which can be deadly, thrive in grass in warm, humid conditions, and infect the goats that eat the grass.

Harvey and the weather that followed - cool, dry days before a stretch of heat and humidity - created perfect conditions for parasites and insects to thrive, Homann said.

"That's kind of just mother nature at its finest," he said. "With the amount of water running through and flooding, you can't control stuff that's that extreme."

Rancher Mike Doguet said an infestation of armyworms followed the storm.

"We got the flood, then we got armyworms, the only thing left was locusts," he said. The worms "eat everything green," and destroy fields, he said. While the insects are an annual occurrence, this year's infestation was far worse than normal, forcing him to treat his ranch and turf farm.

Coburn is hoping for a cold, dry winter to kill the parasites, so she won't still be dealing with them come spring.

Animals standing in floodwaters and being forced to swim has brought about other concerns. Hoof and skin rot and swollen legs were common among animals in flooded pastures.

Doguet, who was able to move his cattle to higher ground for most of Harvey, said he had to treat his herd for pneumonia after the storm.

It was caused by the water and stress, he said. "We had calves starting to get sniffy noses, you can tell. We did have to give them antibiotics to get them back in good shape."

Several of Coburn's goats have died from other bacteria issues despite her best efforts at de-worming, she said, and some of her pregnant goats lost their kids.

Clubb said some of his cattle lost 200 to 300 pounds, both because they couldn't eat and from stress.

"After the storm, they just stood there for a while," Clubb said. "You couldn't move them or drive them. They'd been in water where they had to swim, you just couldn't get them to move. They were afraid to go anywhere, because it got worse in any direction they went."

"It's just been hard on them. A lot of them got lame, some lost weight. It's hard to describe the full effect it has on a cow," Clubb said,Coburn estimates it will take a good year or so for the animals to fully recover

"If it rains, they freak out," she said. "They run, they have PTSD."

"The main long-term effect for the agriculture side is the supplemental feeding of the animals through the winter," Homann said. That's due to two problems. Hay that was stored was flooded and destroyed, and the flooding and oxygen depletion damaged the grass.

"Just like people, you can only hold your breath for so long because it goes downhill," he said. When grass is deep underwater without air, it loses nutrients and the root structure is damaged, he said.

He's suggesting that people aerate their fields to let oxygen back into the roots, which will help the grass grow back better in the spring. Homann also recommends getting soil tested to see what nutrients are lacking, so they can target it with the right fertilizer in the spring. He admits that's a long-term approach to an immediate problem.

"We basically won't have regular grazing until next April or May," Clubb said. For now, "it's just trying to get by." He estimated that he'll use twice as much hay as in a normal year, an extra expense to take on after the storm.

Business will take time to bounce back, as well. Clubb said he'll have fewer cows to sell this year, and will need to spend more to buy more to replace those who drowned or died after the storm.

"You've got added expenses and less potential income, you've got to get friendly with your banker," he said.

Smaller-scale businesses like Coburn's are hurting, too. She's got fewer chickens and turkeys to sell, because the storm hit when she would normally have been incubating them. There aren't many buyers for animals or eggs, either, she said, because money is tight and people are focused on rebuilding more than anything else.

The animals she has been able to sell have been at a loss. Buyers paid $25 each for piglets that usually sell for more than $100, she said.She's thinking about downsizing the farm, because she and her husband need to focus time and money on repairing their home and barn, and caring for the remaining animals.

That's the same decision many ranchers are going to be considering, Homann said. "Those guys that lost cattle are deciding, 'do we buy more, do we start over, do we sell the rest of what we've got?'" he said.

Harvey's long-term effects on agriculture in the area won't be known for at least a year, he said.

"We'll have to have a year or two of data to see the kind of local markets and if they've changed," he said.