For Mississippi cattlemen and dairies, the big money lost to Katrina's wrath was in damage to barns and fencing.

“I'm guessing 90 percent of our damages are in those two things,” said Mike Keene, Mississippi Extension cattle specialist. We've had a lot of barns destroyed and miles and miles of fences ruined.”

Although a full accounting is yet to take place, it's believed livestock largely escaped death. “We don't believe we have a large percentage of dead livestock — maybe 1 percent. Most of the dead animals I've heard about were killed by falling trees. There have been reports of cattle that drowned. However, as far as I know, that hasn't been verified.”

Some 175 Mississippi dairies were impacted by the hurricane with varying degrees of severity.

“It's a huge mess,” said Bill Herndon, Mississippi Extension dairy economist. “In the days immediately after the storm, the dairies were unable to milk because of power outages. Those dairies with generators found they didn't have enough power to both milk and cool their product. That meant they ended up dumping their milk.”

Even those able to milk and cool were in dire straits. There was so much tree and road damage, trucks couldn't reach rural areas where the dairies are located.

“We believe, on average, dairies had to dump a week's worth of milk. That's an average. Some are still dumping milk three weeks after the hurricane — mainly because there's not enough power to cool milk.”

The initial impact costs are in dumped milk and physical damage to barns and outbuildings. “Fuel costs are also figured in there. The biggest problem is with all the downed trees, fences are damaged all over.”

Then, there's the longer-term impact. For optimum production, cows need to be milked twice a day. If not milked regularly, a cow's lactation cycle is thrown off and it isn't able to recover well.

“If they aren't milked, cows suffer much more from heat stress and illnesses they become susceptible to as a result of not being milked properly. They're prone to milk fever. So, the longer term impacts could reduce dairy production by 25 percent over the next 12 months.”

Adding preliminary immediate impact data and long-term potential together, Herndon estimates Katrina will cost Mississippi dairymen $23.5 million.

Keene has seen quite a few producers sell out. “They're discouraged and don't have the resources or labor to get their fences back up to keep their cattle in. So they've opted to get rid of their animals. Good folks are having a tough time right now.”

The initial sell-off is slowing down, said Keene. But before it ends, “some other folks are bound to get out.”

With animals being sold, certain classes of cattle are “making markets cheaper. There's no local interest in bred cattle or cow/calf pairs. Yearling calf prices are holding up well, though.”

Some dairies have also shut their doors. A group of seven dairies in Pearl River County — near Picayune and Poplarville — was hit terribly by the hurricane.

“They suffered so much damage that the whole group felt they couldn't recover,” said Herndon. “The Monday after the storm, they called a dairy auction company in Missouri. By Wednesday, the cows had been collected from their farms. They're out of business now.

“Those are the only dairy farmers I know who have gone out of business. In talking to farmers and county Extension agents, though, I'm guessing by this time next year there will be at least 20 percent fewer dairy farms.

“Dairy farmers are looking at the numbers and they aren't encouraging. Many believe they can't afford to rebuild or don't want to. Some are at an age where they don't want to begin again. Regardless, there will be a much smaller dairy industry in Mississippi after Katrina.”

Piling on the miseries, many Mississippi cattlemen will likely lose their third cutting of hay due to dry conditions.

“Labor also plays a role in that — folks are so busy doing other things having to do with hurricane damage,” said Keene. “That third cutting could be left in the field. If that's the case, when March and April rolls around we'll be short of hay. There aren't a lot of good options.”

Dairies face the same problem.

“Cows typically begin foraging in late October/early November,” said Herndon. “If this hurricane causes a delay in planting ryegrass — or prohibits planting altogether — there will be increased feed costs. Farmers will have to replace that ryegrass with hay or silage or something else they weren't planning on having to buy.”

Many have a misconception about the scope of the work needed on fencing, said Keene. “A lot of this fence repair isn't chainsaw and tractor work — it's bulldozer work. There is big timber on the ground for extended stretches. You could go out and cut on that debris with a chainsaw forever and barely scratch it. To get those fences fixed properly, it's going to take big equipment.”

How long does Keene think it will take to get things back in shape?

“I think it'll be at least a year before some of these places are back. It may take longer.”

Are high fuel prices impacting cattle operations? “Yes, they are. We've had hay offered — or donated. But we can't get it all because we don't have the cash available to pay the trucking fees. People have been kind and offered us the hay, and we appreciate them so much. But they can't pay the trucking too. So we can't get it here. That's a problem.

“Actually, we've had people donate a lot of products — feed, hay, some fencing materials. And there are others offering to help even more. But, like I said, the fuel prices are so high we don't have the money to truck it in.”

Keene said one thing that would help speed recovery is increased acceptance of temporary electric fencing.

“Using electric fencing would alleviate some pressure. But most folks want to keep posting barbwire. We could get by with less expensive material for a short period. Electric fencing is a hard sell, though. A lot of cattlemen still want five strands of barbwire. Doing that takes a lot longer, though. I know this: times will get better. They have to.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com