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Narrow Miss: Laura Threatens Coastal Cowboys and Cattle

Ruth Wiechmann
for Tri-State Livestock News

Last week’s forecast was dire for the Gulf Coast of Texas. Hurricane Laura was gathering speed and had her eye on the shores of Louisiana and Texas. Although marshy coastland is not what usually comes to mind when Texas cattle country is mentioned, it is home to cattle and cowboys just like the rocky brush country of West Texas.

“The salt grass marshes on the coast are not good for much of anything except running cattle or hunting ducks,” said Charles Edwards, a seventh generation Texan who ranches and farms with his dad and also works for his grandfather on his ranch. His family put down cowboy roots in Texas prior to the Texas War of Independence; a crossed W brand used by James Taylor White who settled in the area in 1820 is still used by Charles’ cousins and is one of the oldest recorded brands still in use in Texas.

The Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes region is a nearly level, slowly drained plain less than 150 above sea level, and includes barrier islands along the coast, salt grass marshes surrounding bays and estuaries, remnant tallgrass prairies, oak parklands and oak mottes scattered along the coast, and tall woodlands in the river bottoms. With a three hundred day growing season, warm temperatures and average annual rainfall ranging from thirty to fifty inches, it is ideal to provide year-round grazing for the Edwards family’s cattle.

“Cows do really well on salt grass,” Edwards said. “During the winter we’ll supplement with a little liquid feed but otherwise they do great unless it gets boggy from too much rain.”

When Laura loomed in the Gulf, forecasters predicted a storm surge up to fifteen feet deep along the coast. It was time for a trail drive.

“As soon as there is a storm in the gulf we need to get the cattle to higher ground,” Edwards said. “The farther north the better. You don’t want to go through all that work for nothing and lose them to the water anyway if you don’t move them far enough.”

Edwards doesn’t have a lot of pasture close to home but can get by for a week or so until a storm passes if they mix bunches of cattle together.

“We can hold them for a week or so till we can move them back,” he said. “If need be we can lease pastures farther north be we don’t want to haul them out if we don’t have to. We do what we can and pray for the best. There’s only so much we can do.”

Local law enforcement gets involved with the trail drive to move the cattle to higher ground.

“We get in front and behind to help move the cattle,” said Brad Crone, a Special Agent with Texas Department of Public Safety from Winnie, Chamber County, Texas. “We don’t completely close the road but we help keep everyone safe. Most people are respectful but every now and then you get someone who tries to drive right through the middle of the cattle.”

“Some people don’t understand how animals move,” Edwards said, “They don’t realize we can’t go sixty-five miles an hour. There’s also extra traffic with all the people from the coastal area trying to evacuate at the same time. It can be frustrating but we try to take our time.”

Thankfully, Laura took a last minute turn back to the east and the Texas coast was spared.

“It was not nearly as bad as expected,” Edwards said. “We were told to expect 150 mile per hour winds, but the trees never even shook. We were really happy it didn’t get as bad as they said it could.”

It doesn’t always end peacefully. In 2008, Hurricane Ike hit the area with a fifteen foot storm surge that left a lasting mark.

“The storm surge is our biggest enemy,” Edwards said. “When that much salt water ends up in your pastures it takes years to restore the grass. It’s not just a seasonal loss, we won’t have grass or a hayfield for three to four years. After Ike we couldn’t run cattle on the coast for three years and we had thirty-three miles of fence to rebuild. We found pasture to rent a few hours away near Chappell Hill so we adjusted and were able to ride it out, but we sure don’t want to have to go through that again.”

Tropical Storm Nana is on the radar now, but she is taking a southerly course and Edwards is busy harvesting rice and the cattle are back in their salt grass pastures.

“We usually have one storm per year that looks bad enough that we have to move the cattle out,” he said. “In the last four years we’ve had Harvey, Imelda and now Laura, so three years out of four we had to get them to higher ground. Usually we can expect one good threat per year.”

“You have to take the threat seriously,” Brad Crone said. “After Ike a lot of people who evacuated had nothing left when they got back. This time we got lucky.”


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