MAURERTOWN – Heavy rains last summer followed by piles of snow this winter led to a surge in cattle loss in Shenandoah County, according to Bobby Clark, a senior extension agent.
“I’ve had people tell me normal [calf death loss] is between 2 and 5 percent,” Clark said last week. “We’re running between 10 and 15 percent, depending on who I talk to.”
One of Clark’s jobs with the Virginia Cooperative Extension is to run regular damage assessments, he said. Different assessments come up following extreme weather — drought, hurricanes, tornadoes — or other causes of damage. This year, the wet weather was so severe that Clark had to trek around Shenandoah and Page counties, talking with farmers and recording what the years ahead might look like.
When farms get and stay wet for extended periods of times, problems pile on top of each other, creating a cycle that is difficult to escape, Clark said. When record rainfall came through last summer, cows were left with wet hooves for much longer than is normal.
“They’re not designed for their feet to be wet for months on end,” he said. “Their feet are getting softer. When the ground freezes and it gets hard, their feet hurt.”
Sore feet are only the beginning of problems farmers and their cattle face.
Sometimes, Clark said, calves will get stepped on while they are struggling through the mud. Some diseases are more prevalent and spread faster when the weather is wet, he said.
Doug French has been farming his entire life, he said, and this year has been brutal. A couple of weeks ago, he had a couple of calves get stuck in the mud. He said he could barely get into the quagmire himself and had to use a four-wheeler to pull them out.
The wet conditions have caused another problem for farmers. As they feed their cattle hay, they will often roll it out on the ground. In normal years, they don’t have any issues. Cattle eat the hay before it rots. With all of the extra moisture in and on the ground this year, however, farmers are going through much more hay than normal, which is driving up their costs, Clark said.
“If I just take this one segment, the livestock industry, which has been hurt the hardest by this particular issue,” Clark said, “I’m looking at somewhere between 25-30 percent loss in revenue on these farms. Either lost revenue or added expenses.”
Hay hasn’t been an issue for French, who said his feed facility has protected him from a lot of issues, but the mud is still piling on problems. His calf losses are around 11 to 12 percent this year, up from a normal range of 4 to 5 percent, he said.
“We are set up better than I ever thought we’d be in my lifetime,” French said. “I’m blessed. Still, I’m losing 50 percent more than in years past.”
One of the biggest problems French has had this year is his calves aren’t feeding from their mothers. There are always a handful of calves that don’t suckle and end up dying from malnourishment, he said, but that has been far more common this year.
As the mothers are walking through the mud, French said, they are covering their udders, blocking milk from calves.
“Those cows are dragging themselves through that, the calf gets up and starts to suck, and he grabs a wet ball of mud,” French said. “And that seems to be the worst of it to me. He’s not getting any nourishment, so he just stops sucking.”
Immediate shortfalls will have a ripple effect on these farmers, Clark said, with farmers facing a roughly 28 percent profitability loss.
Farmers have to cope with buying extra feed and hay as well as prepare to repair their land that animals and machines are putting extra wear and tear on.
Rather than allowing cattle to stand and graze in one area, Clark said, the wet, muddy conditions have forced farmers to move their animals around. As each patch gets used, the cattle must be moved further and further out, forcing farmers to use large vehicles to get feed to them, causing more damage than usual to their land.
“We have damaged areas that are way worse than normal,” Clark said. “The farmers are going to do their best to fix this stuff, but they’ve tore it up a lot worse, and it reduces their productivity for the future.”
French won’t recover his financial losses from this past year for another two or three years, he said. The calves being born now won’t be sold until next fall. At the beginning of the season, French said he bought extra cows, counting on selling those to make some extra money.
“I was going to lose some anyway, but that margin is not going to be there,” French said. “I was anticipating on that for income up the road. It does affect me for the next three years.”
While some public funds are available to help alleviate these costs, Clark said he isn’t sure how soon programs will crop up. Immediate assistance, he said, is usually sub-par as solutions aren’t well thought out or designed — resulting in unhelpful programs and poorly used funds.
In order for farmers to take advantage of programs that do become available, Clark said it is important they reach out to the local Farm Service Agency to report any cattle loss they’ve had. Losses must be reported within 30 days to be eligible to receive any kind of payments.
The local Farm Service Agency office is in Strasburg. The phone number is 540-465-2424 ext. 2.