Updated: Nov 9, 2020
***Originally Published in Gulf Coast Cattleman***
Hurricane Laura devastated ranchers in southwest Louisiana when she made landfall as a high category four hurricane with sustained winds of 150mph just after midnight on Aug. 27, 2020.
“The people down here have been through hurricanes before, but this one was more devastating than anything we’ve seen before,” said Dale Cambre, Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association president. “This storm destroyed barns, fences, fields, and livestock that were still there. In most places, ranchers are going to have to rebuild from the ground up. That’s starting over with new fences, new gates, new barns, and trying to replenish their hay supply.”
Conner Hays, manager of the Gray Ranch in Cameron Parish, said ranchers will need at least a year if not longer to recover from the destruction of Hurricane Laura.
“This is catastrophic,” Hays said. “Some guys are going to be set behind for a year, if not longer. It comes down to what kind of resources the individual has… Do they have the machinery to get in and clean fence lines off? Do they have it in their budget to contract out fence work? If you have the means you may be alright through the winter. But if not, you’re going to have to take a loan out if you even have that option. Some may even be forced to go out of business.”
To grasp the full scope of the long-term impact of Hurricane Laura, one must understand the unique range management system in southwest Louisiana. Ranchers summer their cattle further north and move them down to marsh pastures along the coast in the winter. Now, those marsh pasture fences are largely nonexistent leaving ranchers with no rangeland for the coming winter months.
“We summer cattle up here, but we winter them in the marsh,” said Burl Baty, a rancher in Cameron parish who took in approximately 700 head of neighbors’ cattle. “We start taking them down to the marsh around October 15 when the storms start settling down for the year. Our marsh pasture is all on the south side of Highway 82; it’s 15,000 acres and it’s all one pasture. There are about eight of us who winter cattle there. Then we bring them back north the first week in May.”
Hays said while the majority of damage from this hurricane was due to wind, some areas on the coast still got a storm surge causing even more damage. Louisiana producers’ immediate and dire need is fencing, but if fences aren’t restored, they will be in need of hay to make it through the winter.
“In some places you have no fences whatsoever, in others there’s at least wire that could be picked up,” Hays said. “Here it is September and we’re going to be moving down to Johnson Bayou in the later part of October. If we don’t have fences in place, we’ll have nowhere to go. Even though it’s an open range parish, we still have to keep animals off the roads. So fencing is definitely the biggest need right now.
“Hay will be a big factor later on…For a lot of guys, marsh pasture is their plan for winter. If they end up not being able to send cattle to the marsh due to fences being down or salt water ruining forage, they’re going to be relying entirely on hay to get through the winter. If you’re forced to hay your cattle through the winter, you’re talking about expenses that will absolutely blow your mind. That alone could ruin a cattle operation in less than a year.”
Cambre explained that many ranchers lost what little hay they had stored for the winter or have been forced to feed it now in places where cattle are overstocked in small traps while fences are down in other areas.
“They are going to have to replenish the hay they had stored,” Cambre said. “If their native grasses come back in time, they may get one more cutting in on that, but they probably won’t. That issue is going to be far reaching throughout this winter. Ranchers are going to need hay and feed to get through it. If they have fences up and can get cattle back in the marshes then they may be able to get by, but if the saltwater stays in the marsh too long there won’t even be any marsh grass left.”
Baty said locals “didn’t get much of a first cutting and didn’t get a second cutting at all” due to the hurricane and he is doubtful they will be able to get another cutting this year whatsoever.
Individuals and companies in the agricultural industry across the country are looking for ways they can bring aide to the producers who so desperately need it in southwest Louisiana. While the need for aide is certainly not lacking, the difficulty for most is in finding where to take materials and who needs them most. The need for relief efforts is no where near over, this will be a long recovery process for those who are literally rebuilding their livelihoods from the roots up. The imperative thing is to ensure that those who are truly in need get the assistance and materials they need most in a suitable manner.
“If one man is donated hay and he doesn’t need hay, he’s not getting what he needs,” Hays said. “I believe the best way to give relief to cattlemen in southwest Louisiana is to get funding and materials into the correct channels and then let those channels distribute materials.
“Let an organization like the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association go to producers, talk with producers, find out what their needs are, and then distribute those materials where they’re needed most.”
Individuals who would like to donate to fund fencing materials and other necessities such as water troughs, feed storage, gates, etc. should contact the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association at 225-343-3491 or mail a check payable to the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Foundation with “Disaster Relief” in the memo to 4921 I-10 Frontage Rd, Port Allen, LA 70767.
“Any monetary contributions that come into the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Association, are going to be earmarked for Hurricane Laura relief funds,” Cambre said. “That’s going to go in a separate account strictly for the Louisiana Cattlemen’s Foundation 501(c)(3), that money will then be divided between all affected parishes by individuals who know the farmers and ranchers in that area and their specific needs. That money will be going into the right hands and aiding the right people.”
Individuals who would like to donate hay should contact Louisiana Farm Bureau’s Hay Clearinghouse at 225-922-6200. The Louisiana Farm Bureau will connect you with an individual operation in need or drop point where ranching communities can pick up hay in affected parishes.
“Cattlemen are resourceful, they can go out and find ways to make it, but when there’s nothing left after a storm like this, it’s almost impossible,” Cambre said. “Cattlemen in southwest Louisiana are going to need a lot of help to make it.”