Nebraska crisis; cattlemen flooded with no place to go

Deanna Nelson-Licking

Nebraska, a land of corn and cattle is half underwater, two thirds of the state declared disaster areas and over a score of towns evacuated. The heart of Nebraska’s farm county was dealt a cruel blow. Farmers and ranchers were cut off from their livestock or were unable to get them out due to the rapidly rising water and ice. Many lost all their feed, calving supplies, everything. Not knowing how they are going to care for the animals they still have. At this point producers are just trying to survive, hauling hay by boat and helicopter to marooned cattle, saving calves and treating sickness. With so much of the state still covered by water, ice chunks and bottomless mud the actually numbers of dead livestock are yet to be truly known. Some ranchers are estimating they lost at least 25 percent of their 2019 calf crop. This comes at a time when the weigh-up market is low yet producers can’t afford to feed a non-producing cow. These were some of the best and most productive members of the herd, the first ones to breed back, the ones who kept their calves alive through the bitter cold only to lose them now.

Talia Goes, Communications Director for the Nebraska Cattlemen spoke of the need these ranchers will have for fencing and vet supplies, feed, tools, many lost everything. “One producer knew the water was coming so he pulled all his calves and put them in a high barn because he knew he could save them. Thankfully the flooding wasn’t as bad and most of his cows survived.”

“This winter has been really hard on producers. Ranchers are always preparing, they are resilient and self-sufficient but there was nothing they could do here.” Goes said. “We heard that some feedlots moved their cattle, most of the others are on high enough ground that the cattle are safe from flood waters.”

Tye Bloom ranches with his family near the small town of Scotia, Nebraska. They have a cow/calf operation along with a little farming. He woke up in the night to their usually dry creek a raging river, cutting them off from their cows that were calving heavy at the time. “My house had water a foot from the porch, I could see rats and mice swimming, trying to get to dry ground. We were running around boarding things up so they couldn’t get in the house. My grandpa is 73 and he said he has never seen Wallace Creek flood like that.”

“Water is a very good servant, but it is a cruel master.’’C.G.D. Roberts

“It was the good eight inches of snow and the gale force winds that got us. Some of the calves drowned, others were tromped in the mud. The wind and snow pushed the cows. The worst part was going out once we could get to them and picking up the dead calves. The mommas were still standing over them, licking them, trying to get them up. We lost 34 calves; five or six of them were ET (embryo transplant) bull calves, our biggest calves.” Bloom said. “We had a lot of sick ones for the first few days, but haven’t lost any since. It is so hard to get around now with the bridges out and roads gone. Our Rangers are the only ways we can get around now.”

Bloom and his family are now forced to leave their vehicles and take a four mile ranger ride just to get home.

Leah Peterson, fifth generation farmer/rancher at Cooksley Clear Creek Far, near Weissert, Nebraska, told me her story.

“Last Wednesday morning at 6am, I woke to the sound of gentle rains hitting the steel roof of our old farm house along Clear Creek in Custer County, Nebraska.

As I scurried around to roust the kids and put them on the bus, my husband returned home from making an early run through the heifers and he wore a worried expression.

He didn’t say much as he gathered his things to head down the road for a meeting with local farmers who were gathering to talk all things planting season.

As the sun rose, and I readied our toddler to head out the door to morning chores, our local weather man was cautioning us all about concerns for localized flooding. I had been more concerned about helping move the big cow herd that morning in preparation for the blizzard and 70mph winds we were expecting later that night. It wasn’t until I drove across the bridge at Clear Creek at 8am, that I began to consider the idea that flooding would pose as much danger as a blizzard.

We hurriedly fed all the fat calves in the lot and then my dad, our ranch hand, and I began to plan for moving the cows to shelter out of the wind. As we set out to drive them from their usual calving grounds to the safety of a large shelter belt, I became startled under the falling rain. Small streams were beginning to appear. Everywhere. Those that were running downhill from melting snowpack moved quickly. As we approached a low spot that occasionally has standing water, I stopped in my tracks when I saw cows going through in water up to their bellies. Water that was rushing. I quickly grabbed a set of hobbles and put them on a new calf and threw him in my Polaris.

We pushed the cows through and as we approached our “safe grounds” noticed the sounds of Clear Creek. She was beginning to sound angry in the distance. The area where we shelter the cows during blizzards was also beginning to collect water that couldn’t flow away because the ground remained frozen.

The feed wagon we used to tease the cows out, got stuck.

Dad bailed out and waved us in.

It was at that moment, that fear crept in.

My father, ranching along Clear Creek since 1976, was worried.

We hashed our back up plans.

We began to try and execute them.

One by one, they failed.

And the water continued to rise.

The cows were getting exhausted and so were we.

The eye of the storm passed over and we knew that we had one moment of calm to enjoy before the winds turned to the north and the sun began to set.

Worry turned to some panic.

And the water rose more.

In a final desperate attempt, we went to move the cow herd one last time before the final bridge that remained above water disappeared. By then, Clear Creek had risen to level none of us had ever seen. We were cut off from the main ranch headquarters by waters rushing high enough that we could cross by tractor only. The cattle, being exhausted, were then in shock. They would not cross the bridge. Finally, we gave up and had no choice but to send them all through the raging waters for safety in a smaller shelterbelt. By the grace of God, they all made it. And so did we.

We fenced them in and put out as much hay as we were able and retreated as darkness set in.

Nothing was left to do but pray to God almighty to see our cows through the blizzard that raged the next 24 hours.

When the winds calmed and waters began to recede we took stock of our losses. We were spared much of the heartache that our fellow Nebraskans were not. Now, almost a full week later, it’s difficult to even recall all that has transpired. For as much as we are grieving and concerned, life has gone on as it always does this time of year. The appearance of new life has reminded us that hope springs eternal and that we will persevere through these times.

With the help of God and one another we will get through all of this.

Nebraska is our home and we are Nebraska Strong.”

Fifth generation rancher Karina Jones and family were hit hard by a terrible hail storm in 2017 and were just getting back on their feet, when the storm hit. This is her story.

“The National Weather Service and all local news outlets give us ample warning in the days leading up to our “Bomb Cyclone”. They talked about the moisture that would start as rain and switch over to snow and the category 2 Hurricane force winds that were expected. But, really, who has ever experienced a “Bomb Cyclone” in central Nebraska.

Although, extremely weary and tired from a brutally, record breaking cold February in which we calved all of our AI heifers, we prepared for the storm like we would any blizzard.  We fed everything up with extra hay. We made sure that everything had access to canyons which have always served as their shelters from the spring blizzards that have come in the years before.

As the rain began to fall the afternoon of Tuesday, March 12, we were starting to see the run off from these rolling hills and some water was beginning to go over low lying roads.  We thought we had everything tucked in pretty good to handle whatever the weather was going to hand us that night but as we laid sleepless in bed, our stomach in knots, we were starting to get a grasp that this storm was of a different beast.  I honestly feared that the windows were going to blow into our home. The force of the wind and the driving rain is something I will never forget.

As the sun rose on the morning of March 13, the rain let up, the wind was still fierce.  Our school called at 6:30 am and asked that we meet the bus at another location because they didn’t think they could get down our road.  I did not want to put our girls on the bus that morning, but they both had their Science Fair presentations and they were anxious about missing that.  When my husband returned from meeting the bus, my mother’s heart sank when he said, “I don’t think we will be getting the girls home today.  These roads are in too bad of shape.”  I call my mother in law, who lives along Highway 2 and she agreed she could get to Ansley and pick them up and keep them until our roads would be safe.

The rest of Wednesday was spent trying to feed cattle and accessing the health and safety of our February calves.  Surely, those pairs would be fine.  The were behind a cedar tree windbreak, with guard rail fence, not to mention they had an open front calf shed bedded down with fresh hay. We had done all we could.  But as the rain continued to fall on our completely frozen ground, the run became torrential; the dams had all they could hold.  We have 3 dams that hold water out of our corrals and lots.  They were all spilling over and running right through our corrals like a river.  Including the one dam that breached and like an arrow that water ran right to that open front shed.

We worked to try and divert the water around that shed but we just couldn’t keep up. We kept clinging to some hope that our cows were supposed to be another week off from calving and they were out on winter range and had those canyons to go to. We were hoping they were fairing far better than our first calf heifer pairs.

The rain changed to snow in the afternoon and evening hours of March 13. They said we were only supposed to get a few inches of snow. Surely, this has to be better than the driving rain. This was the blizzard we had been preparing for!  We had a barn full of goats kidding, so my husband, Marty, and I took turns through the night going back and forth to the barn to help new baby goats nurse and such.  It was the blinding, driving blizzard conditions we were all used to.

When the sun would come up on Thursday, March 14, our dig out from snow would begin. Snow had drifted as tall as the guard rail fences and right over them. The open front calf shed was now filled with snow as it had drifted in.  At noon on this day the sustained winds in Broken Bow, NE were still be clocked at 77 mph. This was now day 3 of this extreme weather phenomenon. The winds would not subside until well into that late evening.

The sun came out Friday, March 14th and we began to grasp our reality. Snow was starting to melt and we were finding dead baby calves underneath. Our cows, unfortunately, did indeed start calving during the storm. They took refuge in those canyons which have always served as their safe birthing center. They had no way to know that those canyons would turn into raging rivers. We would start seeing the how badly our fences were washed out and dams compromised. We would start seeing the sadness in the faces of our neighbors and we didn’t even have to ask. Then we would watch the news and realize that everything in Nebraska has changed and we are now a state in crisis. We are now an Ag industry in crisis.

As we continue, day by day, we are now full into the throes of calving cows. Some cows were just too stressed from what they went through. Cows that were in the prime of their life, the heart of our genetics, and optimal body condition. While we lost calves during the storm, now it is the cows we seem to be nursing after the storm. Their bodies are trying to carry a calf to full term or are lactating and that is big enough pull on a female’s body. But, the stress of the storm has just been too much for some.

I think many of us are realizing this really is just the beginning, the beginning of a lot of different stresses, rebuilding, and decisions. I am seeing operators with in a 60 miles radius of us saying they are selling out. They are not going to rebuild after these losses. Ranching has been so tough the last few years. Emotionally, most of us have been running on empty. Financially, it should be no secret that working capital has been depleted the last few years. Honestly, I think I speak for all of rural America when I say that we need the whole nation behind us as farmers and ranchers because this way of life is on the brink of extinction.”

The stories keep coming and are heartbreaking, the blizzard took a heavy toll on the 2019 calf crop in the western part of Nebraska and it will be some time before the flooded producers are able to access what they have left. The USDA has a Livestock Indemnity Program to provide assistance to eligible producers for livestock deaths in excess of normal mortality caused by adverse weather. The Nebraska Farm has launched a Disaster Relief Fund and Information Exchange Portal. The relief effort includes the fund where money raised will be given to aid Nebraska farmers, ranchers and rural communities affected by the blizzard and flooding. The Portal will give access to members requesting assistance, needing information and those looking to help. To donate or apply for funds visit their website at

Nebraska Cattlemen has also started a relief fund where 100 percent of the donations will be distributed to Nebraska cattle producers affected by natural disasters. Donations can be made online or checks can be mailed to Nebraska Cattlemen Disaster Relief Fund, 4611 Cattle Drive. Lincoln, NE 68521

If you would rather make donations of hay, feed, fencing materials, volunteer help, and equipment, or if you are seeking assistance, please call the Nebraska Department of Agriculture at 1-800-831-0550.

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has established helpline for those needing counseling and information. Nebraska Family Helpline 1-800-866-8660 and Nebraska Rural Response Hotline 1-800-464-0258.

The Ag industry has been hit hard but rural America is coming to our aid. Semi loads of hay are arriving for displaced livestock, as well as donations of supplies, helping hands and a shoulder to cry on. Recovery will take years, but no one has to do it alone.