By Everett Brazil, III
Hurricane season has already begun, and with it comes the annual preparations for protecting agricultural interests on the farm, especially livestock, which are among the most at risk to hurricanes. Livestock typically weather the storm outdoors, but that is actually the safest place for them, as they can find shelter, even in open pastures.
"You don't want to have them locked in one area, to have as much free movement as possible," said Bridget Carlisle, a livestock agent with the University of Florida/IFAS Cooperative Extension Service, Polk County. "If you give them the opportunity to get away, they're better off in an open pasture."
Florida is particularly at risk to hurricanes because of its many miles of coastline. Although inland counties, including Polk County, tend to see fewer hurricanes than coastal counties, all Florida counties are at risk of serious storms, and anyone who remembers the 2005 season remembers the devastation severe hurricanes can bring to the entire state.
"Hurricane Charley was a big one for Polk County, and there were three hurricanes that hit about the same time for Polk County, so it was pretty rough," Carlisle says.
That contrasts with Texas, which has the second largest U.S. coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. Texas also has its share of hurricanes, but they see far fewer severe storms than Florida.
"The bad ones are infrequent, thank goodness, and one of the fortunate things along the Texas Gulf Coast is we have wide areas with little population, and most of the urban centers are 100 miles or more inland," said Joe Paschal, Texas AgriLife Extension livestock agent, Corpus Christi Research & Extension Center, Corpus Christi.\
"But those lower-populated areas are filled with large numbers of cattle and horse ranches, creating problems in protecting livestock interests from hurricanes when they do hit."
Many problems can be alleviated by preparing for the storm prior to the start of the season, regardless of coastal location. The first step is creating a plan for the livestock that can be put into place as soon as hurricanes are confirmed for a particular area. One important aspect of the plan is to maintain a good relationship with a local veterinarian. Vets can help with updating vaccinations and inoculations, and it is always a good idea to sit down with one before the storm hits. They can help producers take the necessary steps to protect livestock.
But a good relationship with a vet should always be created before the storm. They may not have time for new clients during cleanup efforts.
"Make sure you have a relationship with a vet. If you've never used a particular vet, they will give priority to their clients," Carlisle said.
One of the most important aspects of the plan is where the livestock will weather the storm. Horses and show livestock can be evacuated, but larger cattle herds, including beef and dairy cattle, cannot be evacuated, so they must weather the storm in pastures. Locations should be chosen well in advance, which should be the highest elevations on the property.
"Within 24 hours, the hurricane's over, but you still have the real possibility of flooding. All that water has to go somewhere, and it goes to the coast," Paschal said. "More livestock are killed by drowning than anything else, so let's move them to higher ground."
Fencing is not necessarily be a high priority, but it is always a good idea to check it prior to the start of the season. Livestock can escape through bad fencing, creating headaches during recovery efforts. It may be a good idea to keep livestock in inner pastures, away from fences and roadways, but higher elevation takes a higher priority. If the elevation is highest closest to the fences and roadways, it will be the safest location for the livestock, especially to reach them after the storm.
"If you have high ground next to the road, that's where you want to put them. When the storm's over, I want to get to my cattle, I don't want them too far away I can't get to them," Paschal said.
Once the hurricane is bearing down on the coast, efforts should switch from protecting livestock and agricultural interests to protecting the family, especially if evacuation is necessary. But if livestock preparations were made in advance of the storm, the livestock usually weather the storm with little incidence.
"Develop a hurricane plan now, and put it into action 72 to 96 hours in advance of the storm, so you will have enough time to take care of your family," Paschal said.