From: Barry Shlachter, Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Published September 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Rita Decimates the Louisiana Cattle Industry

Hurricane Rita battered the heart of Louisiana beef cattle country, apparently drowning thousands of head, dispersing others 10 to 15 miles inland and leaving surviving animals with dangerously brackish water and no forage, state officials said Tuesday.

"We're in a pretty serious crisis right now," said Paul Coreil, director of the state's extension service whose agents are helping the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association coordinate emergency deliveries of fresh water, baled hay, portable troughs and fencing material to the marshy, low-lying coastal parishes of southwest Louisiana.

Ranchers enlisted neighbors and anyone with a pickup, horse or an airboat to coax cattle out of the water and to higher land, he said. Extension agent Andrew Granger in Vermilion Parish said cows were driven out of the water and onto La. Hwy. 82 where a temporary cattle pen held the livestock until they could be trucked to safety.

"No one has ever experienced something of this extent -- the height of flood, the area covered from Jefferson Parish next to New Orleans to Texas, Coreil said. It's different from anything we've seen in our lifetime.

"I don't think there will be just one solution," Coreil said from Baton Rouge. "Some ranchers are trying to find rangeland to move their cattle north of effected areas and maybe even nearby parts of Texas."

The region has upwards of 200,000 cattle, mainly Brahman crossbred cow-calf herds and some stocker operations.

But there were no clear estimates of cattle lost because officials don't know how many head were evacuated from two parishes, Cameron and Calcasieu, which got clear warnings of a storm surge. Meanwhile, many ranchers haven't been able to locate all of their herds in two other parishes, Vermilion and Lafourche, where there was no major evacuation of livestock.

"Two-thirds of Vermilion Parish was under water Sunday and we estimate 5,000 to 10,000 cattle were stranded out of some 36,000 cattle in the parish," said Jason Rowntree, a Texas-born cattle specialist with the extension service.

"Cameron Parish, where there were 40,000 cattle, was just flattened," said Rowntree, who did is undergraduate work at Texas A&M University. "Some 3,000 to 10,000 head are unaccounted for. We're hoping and praying most ranchers got their livestock out."

Unless there are reports of damage to timber areas, drowned livestock might be Louisiana's biggest agricultural losses from Rita, said Kurt Guidry, an agricultural economist with the extension service.

Twenty-five percent of the state's cattle are concentrated in the four affected southwestern parishes, which are the top cattle-rearing parishes, officials said. Some rice is grown in the region, but aside from petroleum, cattle is about the only thing of value in this marshy area, Rowntree said.

Bob Felknor, executive officer of the Louisiana Cattlemen's Association, said his organization has agreed to reimburse fuel costs for truckers who volunteered to deliver needed hay and water for stranded cattle.

But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has refused to provide any funds or release any trucks to aid livestock, Felknor complained. "If a lot of cattle die as a result and we have rotting carcasses, this becomes a human health problem."

FEMA did not return a call seeking comment.

"People have offered hay and we are taking cash donations if we have to buy hay, feed or diesel fuel to get the supplies in," Felknor said. "We've gotten just limited support from the government, but a local unit of the National Guard did deliver a truckload of hay. We don't know if the unit acted on its own."

Granger was reached while driving his pickup in Vermilion Parish, where he went from ranch to ranch helping producers collect cattle and advise them on their bext move.

"The biggest problem for the surviving cattle is the salt water," the extension agent said. "It's going to kill all of the grass. There will be no grazing this fall. We're in a bind now for hay, feed. A lot of hay just floated away or has become moldy. And ranchers don't have the resources to make up for the loss of pasture.

"A lot of producers are going to be selling out," Granger predicted.

Cattle prices have been good in recent months, but the extension agent said he's fearful about how cattle buyers will react to tens of thousands offered on the market all at once.

"I don't know how much the market will take advantage of us because we have such high numbers," he said. "Hopefully, they won't take advantage of us."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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