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Texas Cattleman Vows to Rebuild After Hurricane Harvey Claims Calf Herd

Texas cattleman Ty Johnnie said the grass on his 4,500 acres isn’t yet dry and he still hasn’t accounted for all the cattle and calves on his ranch in Orange County, Texas, more than three weeks after Hurricane Harvey blew in from the Gulf of Mexico and slammed the region.

The good news, he said, is he’s found about 290 of his 350-head herd. Where they’ve been or how they survived, he’s not sure, but more are trickling in every day.

The ones that don’t show up, however, will probably never be found as they were likely claimed by the Neches River after more than 50 inches of rain fell and the Rayburn Dam was opened to relieve pressure as the storm hit.

“The water came in overnight and it came in quick,” Johnnie told Successful Farming. “We’re finding (the carcasses of) cattle and calves hung up in the branches of the trees, and some I don’t think we’ll ever find. My family’s been running cattle in these marshes forever and I’d never even heard them talk about floods like that.”

The Texas cattle industry suffered a significant blow when Hurricane Harvey, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm, hit along the state’s Gulf Coast on August 25. The storm rotated around for three days before reforming over the Gulf of Mexico, a rare occurrence, and again hitting land near the Texas-Louisiana border – and Orange County.

Though final numbers haven’t been tallied, it’s likely thousands of head of cattle were lost along with hundreds of miles of fencing and countless pieces of farm equipment, according to government and local reports.

The counties that were hit by Harvey were home to 1.2 million head of cattle, according to data from Texas A&M University. The state is by far the largest cattle producer in the U.S. and averaged $10.7 billion in annual sales of the animals, on average, from 2011 to 2014, the university said.

Some lost everything and some took only a glancing blow, but few cattlemen in east Texas were unscathed as Harvey left wet fields, dead cattle, and flooded homes in its wake. Many ranchers weren’t prepared for the breadth of the storm as few forecasters expected rainfall totals to top four feet.

They were told there would be a lot of precipitation and forecasters were worried about the cyclical nature of the storm that meant it would sit over east Texas for a few days, but even the harshest weather reports didn’t call for more than 50 inches of rain, Johnnie said.

Having weathered several storms in the past including Hurricane Ike in 2008, he expected the storm to blow in, dump some rain, and maybe take down some trees or fencing.

Harvey did that and more.

“We had Ike come through and it pushed some water through, but nothing like this,” he said. “We had 7 or 8 feet of water – Ike didn’t push nearly that amount in. And this stuck around for days and days – the water stayed in the marsh for a solid week and gradually, slowly went down. We had deer stands up 6 feet high and the water was a foot above that, if that tells you how high it was.”

The water was so high, in fact, that after the storm finally blew out they were still able to drive boats over fencing that remained standing in a bid to find surviving livestock.

They’d find a group of four or five calves here or 11 or 12 cows there, and would take as much hay as possible to feed the animals that had swam several miles to safety. The majority of livestock they found were mostly adults while most of his calves perished, Johnnie said.

He did manage to get his tractors and trucks into storage before the storm hit, so he was one of those who didn’t suffer equipment losses, but he did lose some fencing, most of which he’s already replaced.

His pastures are pretty much destroyed from the standing water, and he’s hoping to hear from kind-hearted farmers up north who may want to donate some winter rye grass that he can plant to replenish his land.

Donations of hay, fencing supplies, and labor have rolled in since the storm hit, for which the affected ranchers are extremely grateful, he said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week announced special procedures to assist producers who lost livestock or crops or had other damage to their farms from not only Hurricane Harvey, but also the more-recent Hurricane Irma. The USDA will also offer flexibility on farm loans.

As for his cattle, there’s not much he can do but buy more calves and try to rebuild his herd, Johnnie said. It’s going to take some time, probably more than two years, before things will be back to normal, but like all ranchers in east Texas, he plans to rebuild.

“It was a pretty good hit, but we’ll buy some more stocker cows and move forward,” he said. “I’ve been in Texas all my life, and my family ranched all their lives. No sir, I’m going to die with cattle somewhere. It’s who I am.”

In the video below, the Texas Animal Health Commission helps Johnnie track down his herd and bring feed to stranded cattle.

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