Bruce Schultz, Granger, Andrew L., Wicke, John G., Shields, III, Thomas H. | 12/17/2005 12:00:46 AM
The sound of rain falling Wednesday night (Dec. 14) was sweet as a symphony to Gary Wicke, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Cameron Parish.
"We are hoping these rains will flush out the salt water," he explained.
Reducing salt contamination in the marsh from Hurricane Rita will improve chances for cattle forage to regrow. The sooner that happens, the better, Wicke said.
"We are still short of hay," he stressed.
Even if adequate forage were available, Wicke said it still would not be possible to move cattle to the pastures because fencing has been wiped out from the Intracoastal Waterway south to the coastline.
"That’s our main problem, rebuilding fence," he said.
But Wicke said a federal cost-sharing program – the Emergency Conservation Program administered by the USDA’s Farm Service Agency – is available to help farmers with fences.
According to Wicke, cattle owners in the area evacuated a large number of cattle in the three days before Rita struck, but some were left behind. "I figure parish producers lost probably 6,000 to 8,000, lost to the storm or sold," Wicke said.
Not all cattle that survived the storm have been recovered even now, he said. "We still have a lot of cattle on islands, and every once in awhile they’ll come out," he said.
Grazing lands with fencing intact are being used – in some cases excessively because alternatives aren’t available, Wicke said. "We have a lot of cattle on places that are overgrazed right now," he said.
Many of the area’s cattle families bought pasture in Allen, Beauregard and other northern parishes for summer grazing away from the coast after Hurricane Audrey in 1957.
Wicke said a parishwide ban on burning prevents cattle owners from setting fire to large expanses of thatch washed inland by the tidal surge. Throughout the marsh, dead vegetation smothers the ground and prevents revegetation.
"Until you burn that dead growth off, you’re not going to be able to grow anything," he said.
On the up side, however, the salt water did have a beneficial effect of killing unwanted freshwater vegetation, such as smut grass and salvinia, Wicke said.
To the east of Cameron Parish, cattle producers also need hay, and they are grateful for all donations, said Andrew Granger, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Vermilion Parish.
"We’re still struggling to find hay and get hay down here," Granger said. "We’re hoping for a shipment from Ohio, but it hasn’t gotten here yet."
Bob Felknor, executive secretary of the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association, said donations are continuing, and the need will exist "until our producers are able to grow grass again.
"Fields are still under water, and there’s cattle starving right now," Felknor said.
Granger agreed with that assessment.
"There’s nothing out there for their cattle to eat," Granger said. "This is the most serious catastrophe to affect the cattle industry in Vermilion Parish ever. The economic impact on the cattle industry is phenomenal."
But Granger also said there is some good news.
"Some of the ryegrass that was planted is doing surprisingly well," he said. "I guess we have enough soil moisture now."
Even in some areas with high salt concentrations and in soil originally thought to be too salty for ryegrass, it is greening up, Granger said.
But everyone didn’t plant ryegrass, and any seed planted now would not produce forage until February or March, he said.
Granger estimates 4,000 head of cattle in Vermilion Parish died in the storm, and as many as 4,000 have been sold since Rita. He said the parishwide herd before Rita probably totaled 40,000.
The LSU AgCenter agent said recent news that the Japanese market will re-open to U.S. beef has brought some optimism to the region.
Cattle producers have been spread their herds across Louisiana as far north as Natchitoches, Granger said, explaining they were trying almost anywhere a pasture is available.
"The farthest I heard was Mississippi," Granger said.
Many cattle owners have been forced to sell all or part of their herds, but the prices were far below what they should have gotten because of buyer concerns that cattle could become sick after salt exposure, Granger said.
To the north of Cameron Parish, Calcasieu Parish producers had few deaths in their herds from Rita.
"But we lost tons of hay," said Tommy Shields, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Calcasieu Parish. Worse yet, the area had been suffering from a drought already, he said.
After the storm, Shields said marginal cattle were sold to thin herds because of the scarcity of good grazing land and short supplies of hay.
Now he expresses optimism that rains have helped reduce salt levels in the soil.
"If we can get through January and February and the springtime grass comes back, we’ll be in good shape," Shields said.
Shields said it’s not difficult to get hay donations, but getting it shipped is a challenge because of the high cost of fuel.
Gary Wicke at (337) 775-5516 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Granger at (337) 898-4335 or email@example.com
Tommy Shields at (337) 475-8812 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-8821 or email@example.com