Texas ranchers save cattle from floodwaters after hurricane
1.2 million cattle are located in a 54-county disaster area hit the hardest by Hurricane Harvey. The amount of cattle, horses and livestock lost hasn’t been determined yet, but producers risked their lives and property to protect and save their livestock from the hurrican and ensuing flood.
Hurricane Harvey Animal Response Efforts Underway
AUSTIN - When Governor Abbott declared a preemptive state of disaster for 30 counties in advance of Tropical Depression Harvey; the Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) took the cue and accelerated preparations for what was predicted to be a major storm event. Under the State Emergency Management Plan, TAHC is the state’s coordinating agency for all disaster response issues related to animals, both large and small, including livestock, pets, and zoo animals. By the time Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Friday, August 25, the agency and its response partners were prepared for action.
The storm proved to be even more severe than predicted, and TAHC quickly set up an Animal Response Operations Coordination Center (AROCC) at its headquarters in Austin. Through daily operations at the AROCC, TAHC is striving to meet animal related response needs by coordinating efforts of state, federal, industry, and non-governmental cooperators with an animal focus. The AROCC can be reached at 512-719-0799, or 800-550-8242, ext. 799. The AROCC connects with the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, through agency State Operations Center (SOC) assigned personnel.
TAHC has boots on the ground in some of the hardest hit areas of the state where local authorities have authorized entry, assessing animal issues resulting from Hurricane Harvey. Agency personnel deployed and continue to work with local disaster district committees, calling on resources to meet animal related needs locally whenever possible.
–Texas Animal Health Commission
“At least I have dry feet. If I took about four or five steps in any direction, I’d have wet feet.”
Gene Kubeka, Bay City
So said Gene Kubeka, owner of Wendt Ranch near Bay City, Texas, 25 miles off the Gulf coast and about halfway between Corpus Christi and Houston.
Kubeka, who raises registered Santa Gertrudis cattle with his wife, son and daughter in law, said the 30-35 inches of rain they received over the weekend is a good share of the 48-52 inches they normally expect to receive in an entire year.
It is thought that some areas of Houston will deal with up to 52 inches of rain when Hurricane Harvey’s effects are complete. News outlets say the storm turned into the heaviest tropical downpour ever recorded in the continental United States. As of Aug. 30, the death toll was 23 but sadly is expected to increase as the floodwaters decrease and reveal bodies not yet known about.
Livestock losses have not been totaled and an accurate count may never be possible, as producers will be working overtime to cobble together fence and ensure safe water and feed are available to the living.
“This is a lot worse than we’ve ever experienced – the water buildup in this area.” Kubeka said. He told that another major hurricane hit in 1961 that sent a tidal wave over his ranch, but that receded quickly. “This water is hanging around a lot longer. The magnitude of the water, it’s indescribable. This ranch is one big lake.”
With about 600 head of cattle, getting all of them to safety and accounted for was no quick feat for Kubeka and his family, but he believes they accomplished it.
“On Sunday from about 10:30 to about 2 o’clock, it went from bad to worse. The water started flooding everything. We tarted moving cattle aroud and getting them out of harm’s way. It rained almost all day Sunday. It never stopped.”
Kubeka said they moved some cattle to higher ground that day. A four wheel drive tractor was the only method of transportation other than swimming.
They didn’t use horses because they worried about them stepping in a cattle guard and getting hurt. In some places, the water would have been up to the horses’ backs.
“We were able to do it with a four wheel drive tractor.”
Moving calves that were freshly weaned was a bit of a challenge but they made it work. While the older cattle were ready to move to higher ground, the calves were more confused and, while they could have reached dry ground on their own, they stayed in belly deep water until the Kubeka’s arrived to move them. “We cut the fences but they wouldn’t go through where they knew the fence was. We were able to swim them through two gates. All you could see was their heads. We had to get out (of the tractor) in chest deep water to push them through the gates.
The rain slowed Sunday night but came hard on Monday, forcing the Kubekas to move more cattle, and find higher ground for the ones they’d moved earlier.
“The ‘dry’ spot was getting smaller. We had too many cattle in that pasture. The water had gotten so high.”
Cattle tend to walk into the wind, and the mature cattle were naturally headed that way, which would have resulted in them finding deeper water. The Kubekas pushed them the opposite way, to safety. While their cattle had been separated into smaller breeding groups for the summer, several groups had to be thrown together in order to find a safe place for all of them.
The areas where the cattle wait for the water to recede are small, and soon the grass will be gone, but they had to wait a bit. ‘We can’t get hay to them at this point in time. In order to get hay to them, you’d have to drive your tractor up to the motor. You’d bog the tractor down.”
Kubeka said they haven’t lost a single critter that they know of. There are some cattle on the back part of the ranch that they haven’t reached, but they can see through binoculars that at least most of them are safe on high ground.
While his father in law’s home has been flooded, Kubeka doesn’t yet know the extent of the damage. The storm caused very little wind damage, but the flooding damaged some of their hay.
“We are very thankful that it wasn’t worse. We do have water in the show barn and we have a little bit of water in a hay barn but it will only affect the hay on the bottom. We have about 400 bales stored at a property down the road, we haven’t been able to check on that.”
The hay out of the barns is covered in wrap, and should shed water as long as it’s not in standing water, he said.
“I’m sure there are people worse off then we are,” he said, explaining that some ranchers were forced to leave because of mandatory evacuations, and may not have time to get to their cattle, or the water may have risen higher than they expected.
“North along the Colorado River there will be a considerable amount of livestock that will probably be lost to this event. The Colorado River came out of its banks in the La Grange area. I don’t think those people will ever get all of those cattle out of harm’s way.”
Tom Walker, LaGrange
The sun was shining in LaGrange, Texas by Tuesday, Aug. 29.
But the Colorado River did, indeed flood, said Tom Walker who raises registered Hereford cattle there. “The issue we have is the Colorado River – not the one that goes through the Grand Canyon- we have one in Texas, too. It flooded real bad in places.”
Twenty five to 30 inches of rain in three days, even for an area that had been dry, was more than the land could handle. “I think the burn ban has been lifted,” Walker said.
While he doesn’t have cattle on the river, his friends and neighbors do, and he’s seen some of them roaming around, displaced. He joked that a neighbor might be displaced soon, too.
“We have our county fair this weekend and folks are getting ready for it. One family -the dad took the show heifers to higher ground on Sunday morning. When he came back to get his wife and kids, the water was too high. They had to be boated out the next day. That is a show cattle guy there. His wife might not have been too happy with him.”
Walker said a lot of his fence will need rebuilt, and many others along the river face the same fate.
He said that in his area, smaller operations, with 20 or 30 head of cattle are common. Many of these outfits might own land in the river bottom, and none up higher, so those folks were at the mercy of the landowners above them for a safe location for the cattle during the flooding.
“Folks moved cattle to high ground, it was not always their own land.” Walker said that as far as he knows, neighbors have been supportive of one another, allowing extra cattle on to their ranches in order to get them out of the water and the floodplain.
While his electricity remains functional, others are less fortunate. “My father in law ranches north of Corpus Christi, where the eye of the hurricane was. They probably won’t have electricity for at least a month.”
About 45 miles east of Houston and 100 miles from the coast, Rob Chachere said that as of Aug. 29, Hurricane Harvey had dropped about 41 inches of rain on his ranch, and it was still raining. Even though he figured it would be two more days before he saw the sun, he’s looking at the bright side.
“I consider my family fortunate. A lot of people have had the water go into their homes. We have not had that,” said Chachere, who owns a feed business along with a cattle ranch near Dayton.
But the water is almost everywhere else.
“At one place we have three hay barns and they all have water in them. There is no way to know how much damage is done to the hay until we can get into them and take a look,” he said.
“Even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t be able to move our cattle or have any place to go with them.” With roads closed all around, one family moved cattle right through downtown Dayton on Sunday.
The Chachere family moved cattle earlier to keep them safe. “The cattle were hungry enough to follow a tractor,” he said because they had been standing in water and unable to graze for a day or so.
The cattle are being fed hay on high ground while they wait for water to go down, which can be slow on this flat countryside.
“As of today, we don’t have any ground above water. They are all standing in water. There are places it’s as tall as the fence, four or five foot, and places its just six inches. There is a big bayou – Cedar Bayou – it just can’t carry all the water and the water is spreading out all over the area.
With his fall calving cows set to begin on Sept. 14, Chachere has already had three cows calve early. Two just before the onset of the storm and one in the midst of the flooding. “She had it in kind of a high spot – just a hump out there. She was the only one there but she had it fine and it was ok. We brought the pair a short distance to where we had put out round bales.”
Before the water got to its deepest point, one of his feed customers penned cattle with a boat and horses on a high area, then hauled them out. “This was Sunday so they still had some open roads,” he said.
Ranchers have been helping one another with anything they can, he said.
“Neighbors helping neighbors – that’s constant. Anybody who needs help, people are willing to help.”