Anthony Ruzicka, a fifth-generation Nebraska rancher, got the call at 6 a.m.: The nearby 90-year-old Spencer Dam was failing under pressure of a river swollen with snowmelt and rain. He got out with moments to spare — but the wall of water swallowed up many calves and all his bulls, along with his farmhouse, outbuildings, feed bins, and the original log cabin built when his family came from Czechoslovakia to homestead in the 1860s.
Ruzicka was luckier than most caught in the historic floods across the Midwest. The day before, he and his neighbors in Verdigre, in the northeast corner of Nebraska, had chased most of his herd of 300 cattle a half mile to higher ground, just in case. He doesn’t yet know his total fatalities, but on Saturday alone he saw 15 carcasses.
And losing so many calves and bulls? Calves represent next year’s cash (it takes 12 to 18 months to reach slaughter weight) and bulls represent genetic material that may distinguish the quality of a herd from someone else’s.
“I’m 39 years old; I don’t have children. The cows are my children, and my farm is completely destroyed. Maybe it’s a sign from God to go and do something else,” Ruzicka said.
Even before the “bomb cyclone” and last week’s floods, the farm economy has been terrible, Ruzicka said. Most ranchers he knows are doing their best to break even, working 100-hour weeks and getting up every two hours to check the cows.
Nebraska Farm Bureau President Steve Nelson said it’s too early to provide a definitive estimate of the damage, but some early estimates put ranching losses in the state at $500 million and row crops — in Nebraska, that is largely corn, soy and, to a lesser degree, wheat — at another $400 million.
For livestock, the loss is a combination of animal deaths and loss of productivity (when it’s cold, cattle and calves don’t grow as fast) as well as loss of quality feed sources. For row crops, Nelson explained, farmers are very close to planting season, and fear they won’t have enough time to clean up the land.
Estimated losses include cleanup costs as well as late planting, Nelson said.
Those cleanup costs could be substantial, according to John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. As big a threat as all that river water is, it’s also what in the water that is concerning.
“The water is chock-full of stuff. This is a toxic brew that is going down the river — the water took out gas stations and farm shops and fuel barrels. The Platte, the Elkhorn and their tributaries are bad, as well as on the north end where the dam broke, now we’ve got four or five rivers that have set all-time records for the highest they’ve ever been.”
Ice caused some of the worst damage, Hansen said, causing choke points at bridges and temporary dams that forced the melting water over river banks and onto the roads, stranding farmers, ranchers and their livestock.
The state’s National Guard has been airlifting hay and animal feed to marooned ranchers and farmers, and state authorities have set up a livestock shelter at a fairgrounds in Lincoln.
But Amy Dickerson, managing director of the Lancaster Event Center, said many farmers couldn’t get their animals to shelter because so many roads and bridges were out.
“We don’t have one single cow, horse or llama here yet. We’ve had two false alarms with 20 horses in Waterloo stuck in a barn with water up to their bellies. People have been visiting them by boat, bringing feed. We got a call that 17 of them were headed my way, but they may be headed to another barn.”
Dickerson said they’ve been swarmed with volunteers and have begun functioning as a clearinghouse, connecting people who have animal feed with those who need it. The offer of feed doesn’t do much, though, once floodwaters have ravaged a ranch.
“People are absolutely losing their herds,” said Dickerson. “You can see floating black dots in pictures on Facebook.”
For ranchers and farmers in the northern part of the state, the worst may be over, the floodwaters receding. But saturated earth also brings rot, mold and other challenges, according to Hansen.
“We have some small towns along these rivers that are just going to be devastated. How do you identify needs beyond keeping them alive? And now all of this water is moving south. Hello, Kansas City.”
Kyle Tubbs in Craig, Mo., about 90 miles north of Kansas City, hauled all 400 of his hogs to higher elevations on Saturday afternoon, losing only one animal in the transition. The only building on his farm not underwater is his house, which he raised nine feet after the floods of 2010 and 2011. Tubbs is four days into this flood, the third in 10 years, and he said it’s far from over.
“There’s such a volume of water up in the Dakotas, we’ll be battling this all summer. Our rivers are managed so terribly.”
He worries he won’t be able to bring his animals home for months, and they’ll be kept at a temporary facility with no running water and no farrowing facilities for pregnant sows to give birth — which could lead to further losses.
He’s reduced to using his boat for transport. When he looks out to the south, all he can see is water.
“I’m on the only oceanfront property in Missouri.”