In Wake of Nebraska Floods, Beef Producers Face a New Normal
“There’s a lot of hope. If you don’t have hope, you shouldn’t be in farming,” says Mike Kaminski, a Loup City, Nebraska, farmer and cattle producer.
Kaminski joins thousands of Nebraska cattle producers in dealing with the aftermath of floodwaters and blizzards that brought devastation to their state.
A difficult calving season that began in February with snow and bitter cold became much worse on March 13, when western Nebraska was dealt a terrible blizzard and the eastern half, heavy rain and flooding.
The winter storm, a bomb cyclone, brought hurricane-force winds and heavy precipitation in different forms to areas of Nebraska, Colorado, and North and South Dakota. This storm came at the worst time possible for cattle producers — during the thick of calving season.
“We already had over half of our cows calved out and had been really fortunate to have a 102% calf crop prior to March 13, while others had lost many calves due to the bitter cold,” Kaminski says. “However, when the flood waters rose, it led to losses we weren’t expecting.”
When the rain began falling on the night of March 12, there was already 8 to 10 inches of snow on the frozen ground causing severe runoff and rivers to swell out of their banks, along with huge ice chunks breaking apart and causing damage to nearby farm ground, he explains.
By 10 a.m. on March 13, the water continued to rise on his east-central Nebraska ranch, and swept away 36 cow-calf pairs in the process. Water from the Loup River was covering land Kaminski had never seen under water in the 47 years his family has run cattle there.
This, along with the failure of dams and levees upstream, left a large amount of water moving through eastern Nebraska waterways.
Sixty miles east of Kaminski, near Fullerton along the Cedar River, a similar story unfolded at Galen Frenzen’s ranch. “Winter wasn’t bad until February 1, and we start calving mid-February, so the past month has been long. We’ve been dealing with calves with hypothermia and that was even the ones we found right away and warmed up,” says Frenzen, who is immediate past-president of the Nebraska Cattlemen’s Association.
When the weather didn’t look to be breaking, they decided to bring the next closest 100 cows near to the building site to be able to help the cows and calves more easily. When the cold rains moved in on March 13, the water in the nearby Cedar River and other creeks on his ranch rose fast.
“I’ve lived here all my life. This is the second highest I’ve seen the water to the flood we had on Aug. 13, 1966,” Frenzen says. “The difference in ’66 was the temperature. While we’ve lost cattle with this flood, back then the cattle were washed into the river and would be found downstream, both dead and alive.”
Animal Stresses Ahead
Health problems in cattle stressed from this weather event are starting to appear. Frenzen says calves are suffering from scours and pneumonia. His veterinarian has told area cattle producers to keep a watchful eye, as some side effects from the stress may not be seen until calves are weaned and beyond.
“Pregnancy check time in the fall may be pretty tough. The stress on pregnant cows right now may affect reproduction ability long-term,” Frenzen says.
At Kaminski’s farm, calves were rescued from flood waters and cold weather in hopes their mothers would accept them when they were returned. The attempt was made to graft orphaned calves onto cows who had lost their calves, but those cows had lost milk production quickly due to stress from the event.
Like Kaminski, Frenzen has farmground that has washed away into the river and fields covered in sand, silt, and trees. Besides lost soil, fences are nearly nonexistent in many areas covered in flood waters.
A Financial Toll
The preliminary estimate from the Nebraska Department of Agriculture is more than a $1 billion hit to the agriculture industry, although it could be weeks or months before the loss can be accurately tallied.
“We don’t have to look far to find someone who will help. Funds set up by the Nebraska Cattlemen and Nebraska Department of Ag will be helpful, but it’s our bankers who will have the final say in how easily many farmers and ranchers will recover,” Frenzen says.
Kaminski adds the willingness of neighbors, friends, and family – even complete strangers — to help those in need is what makes Nebraska so great.
“We’re actually OK as far as help goes right now. But once the land dries out, we will have a lot of work to do in the fields, moving sand and silt before we can even think about planting,” Kaminski explains. “And then there’s the miles and miles of fences that will need rebuilt. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
Both cattlemen lost dozens of cattle due to rising flood waters and the sudden impact of the storm. The miles of fences pulled from the ground from the rising tide and strong currents will need to be replaced before cattle can be turned out to spring and summer pastures.
“There are a lot of stories going around about who lost what. We all know there were losses involved, and we all know we will do what it takes to survive,” Frenzen says.
Roads and bridges covered in water, damaged, or washed away are making movement of essential needs for humans and animals challenging. The physical and emotional toll wears on many, but resiliency keeps farmers and ranchers going, Frenzen says. One doesn’t have to look far to see someone else who needs help and is suffering too, he adds.
“As it says in 1 Corinthians 10:13, And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it,” Frenzen says. “God must think the Nebraska farmers are really tough.”