Neither federal nor state officials have yet calculated how much cattle were killed during Harvey and cow victims may eventually number thousands
GLEN FLORA, Texas — As John Locke looked down from a helicopter at his roughly 200 cattle struggling with Harvey's rising floodwaters, he saw about 20 becoming entangled in a barbed wire fence and feared the worst.
Bundled in a lifejacket, the 38-year-old rancher jumped in to try and help. But by the time he reached the Brahmans, a beef cow species that originated in India and is known for its distinctive hump, most had already freed themselves and headed for higher ground with the rest of the herd.
"I thought they were going to die, and they're fine, which is kind of a theme for the whole thing," Locke said.
The damage Harvey inflicted on Texas' cattle industry hasn't been calculated yet, but there's evidence that it might be less than initially feared and perhaps not as costly as Hurricane Ike. That came ashore in 2008 as a weaker storm but with more salty storm surge that wiped out pastures for months. Even though Harvey unleashed catastrophic flooding on counties that are home to 1.2 million beef cattle, which is more than a fourth of the state's herd, there were apparently only a few instances in which large groups of cows drowned.
To be sure, some ranchers were walloped by Harvey, including at least one family that lost hundreds of cattle in flooding that reached the rooftops of low-lying homes near Beaumont, said Bill Hyman, who heads the Independent Cattleman's Association of Texas. And even surviving cattle can bring increased costs, as they can face longer-term health problems from standing in water for days, having gone long periods without eating and stress.
Hyman said he expects the association's membership to fall by 5 percent because some affected ranchers, especially older ones, will leave the business.
But whatever damage Harvey did cause shouldn't trigger a short-term rise in beef prices, said David Anderson, a Texas A&M University professor and agricultural economist. Texas is the nation's top cattle producer, with cow and calf sales averaging $10.7 billion annually between 2011 and 2014. But there are 30 million beef cows in the U.S. and most of the Texas beef industry's feed lots and packing plants are concentrated in parts of the state that escaped the storm.
"Individual ranchers are going to see huge financial effects," Anderson said, including livestock killed; replacing destroyed homes, feed, fences and equipment; and purchasing medicines to protect cows from post-Harvey health problems. "But I don't think we're going to see much at all in the way of market impacts, changes in calf prices for other ranchers, or in the consumer beef prices."
One sign that Harvey might not have been as bad on ranchers as had been feared is that there were, in the early weeks after Harvey, fewer than 10 applications to a federal program that provides aid for livestock carcass disposal, said assistant state conservationist Mark Habiger, who cautioned that it's still too early to declare that a crisis was averted. Federal officials urged ranchers to burn cattle killed in the storm because the soil is so saturated that burying them could spread contamination.
When Ike hit Texas nine years ago, it cost the ranching industry at least an estimated $37 million, killing up to 5,000 cattle and decimating pastureland with saltwater storm surge. During Harvey, most of the flooding was freshwater that came from rains and rivers, meaning many ranches won't have to deal with grasslands hurt by saltwater — though some closer to the Gulf Coast still might.
At Locke's J.D. Hudgins Ranch in Glen Flora, a village with just one post office and an antique shop about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southwest of Houston, the cattle have returned to grazing in lush pastures that are greener than ever. Although Locke's family lost three cows and a calf to Harvey and a few survivors seemed sluggish or walked with a limp as he herded them under a fence one recent day, Locke said it could have been much worse.
"We're just happy they're still here," he said.
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