Aftermath of the flood – ongoing health issues in livestock |

Aftermath of the flood – ongoing health issues in livestock

Some animals have been injured after being caught in fences or wading through water, mud and debris, and some cattle will end up with hardware disease.
Photo courtesy Nebraska Emergency Management Agency

Severe flooding in Nebraska and Iowa in March (following winter storms and snow melt) created a disaster of epic proportions, with horrendous livestock losses, damage to property and destruction of feed supplies. Livestock losses are continuing, with health issues still a problem in some of the surviving cattle.

Dr. Richard Porter, a veterinarian at the Porter Ridge Veterinary Clinic in Ashland, Neb., said that after a disaster of this magnitude, there are many challenges at once; farmers and ranchers are overwhelmed when trying to address them. “People wonder what to do, where to start, and yet we don’t always know what will be needed until later. The stress factor (for the ranchers and the animals alike) is hard to measure, along with the losses,” he said.

“Up north of us, on the Niobrara River, one rancher got his cows out of the way of the flood but the floodwater killed all the bulls that he had for sale; they were caught in a pen where they could not get away. A person can’t deal with everything at once, and the losses have been heartbreaking,” Porter said.

Dale Grotelueschen, DVM, MS and director, Great Plains Veterinary Educational Center for the University of Nebraska, at Clay Center, Neb., said ranchers are still dealing with the aftermath, and some of these challenges will go on for quite a while. “I recently spoke with a rancher who got 8 inches of new snow April 30. We are not quite out of the throes of winter yet,” he said.


Just because an animal survived doesn’t mean that it will be OK. “The cow, horse, pig or sheep didn’t freeze to death in the winter storm, or starve to death, and didn’t drown in the subsequent flooding, but now has a compromised immune system. When you put any animal under that much duress and stress, there will be ramifications, even though the results may not show up for weeks or months, or next fall when ranchers pregnancy-check and find a lot of cows open. Cows may not have been able to cycle and breed, or bulls may not have been as fertile,” he said.

There are many factors that take a toll. As months go by, some of these animals that have been in the water and mud will have various foot problems. “We are (and will be) seeing a lot of foot rot, ulcers, heel cankers and some weird things just because those animals had to stand in the mud for so long and could not dry out,” Porter said.

There is a lot of debris, junk and contamination left in the aftermath of the flood. Some animals have been injured after being caught in fences or wading through water, mud and debris, and some cattle will end up with hardware disease. Others may suffer respiratory problems/pneumonia due to stress and compromised immunities. “This is the secondary part of this type of disaster — the injuries and direct health problems that result from what they’ve gone through,” Porter said.

Grotelueschen said that many situations are very challenging now, after such a tough winter. “It’s been difficult for cow herds to maintain good body condition. Some ranchers are still calving or recently calved, and if cows are thin they tend to have less vigorous calves that tend to absorb less colostrum.” The cows may not produce adequate amounts of colostrum, and what they do produce may be poor quality due to their own nutritional deficiencies. Plus, the calves are unable to absorb colostrum if they are weak, slow to get up, and unable to suckle in a timely manner.

“Even though the weather has warmed up and temperatures are not as cold as they were a month ago, calf vigor may not be good; those calves are more vulnerable to health problems after birth and later on.” They also don’t have normal body reserves.

Many ranchers have noticed that it takes these newborn calves longer to stand and nurse. “This often means they are less vigorous in nursing and absorb less colostrum, which means they may have more health issues, not only immediately, but on into the summer. There will be more risk for summer pneumonia, for instance. The calves’ health may still be compromised as they go into the feedlot this fall,” Groteleuschen said.

It’s not as cold now, so survival rate on newborn calves is better, and the flooding has subsided, but there is still the issue of diminished calf vigor. Producers may think that the calves being born now will be okay because the weather is better, not realizing how compromised these calves might be.

“All of these animals have been stressed, so we want to make sure they are not deficient in important minerals (which are crucial for a healthy immune system, among other things). Don’t forget the basics; when animals are going out to grass this spring we want to make sure they don’t have issues we’re not aware of. They have been severely stressed and may be more susceptible to imbalances. There’s good moisture this spring and there may be some magnesium issues in new lush grass.”

Any pastures that were not damaged by the flooding will be flourishing nicely this spring, and producers don’t want to forget about the basic problems (like risks for grass tetany) while dealing with all the extra problems caused by the flooding.


“At the front of our minds is the effect of the harsh winter and flooding on this year’s breeding season,” Groteleuschen said. “Breed-back rate may be reduced, and reproductive issues may be increased. I urge producers to critically evaluate body condition of their cows. If their BCS is less than 5 (especially if cows are down to a score of 3 or 4 or less) the producer should potentially consult with a nutritionist to design a ration that can try to do as much as possible to alleviate the deficiencies,” he said.

Regaining body condition while a cow is lactating can be a challenge, however, especially when feed sources have been damaged or destroyed in the flood. “Producers can only do the best they can to meet the nutritional needs of these cattle and get them into a better position to cycle.”

He urged producers to monitor cycling activity in their herds, prior to breeding. “There should be about 5% of the herd cycling daily. The issues we get into when cows are not cycling are not only open cows (that didn’t breed during the breeding season) but also the ones that started cycling later and may have later calves. This translates to decreased weaning weights next year in those younger calves.”

It’s also important to test the bulls after this stress, to make sure they are fertile before breeding season. “They may have suffered winter storm damage (scrotal frostbite) or other problems, including loss of body condition, or lameness. It’s important to know, before you turn those bulls out with the cows,” Groteleuschen said.


“The tertiary part of flooding aftermath will be health concerns due to contamination of water and feed from chemicals or pathogens,” Porter said. “In cattle this may result in bad livers, kidney damage, etc. Some of the molds (like we see in corn) are toxic and can cause poisoning and eventual death.”

These contaminants can be deadly for humans, too. “This spring people should be cautious about picking wild mushrooms, for instance. Anything growing along the river is contaminated, absorbing all those toxins.” People may not think about that, or the damage to some of the things the livestock are eating, and the toxic molds.

“We had a good rain recently, and rain is actually the best thing to happen, because it tends to wash everything off and help flush some of the organic material out of ponds and lakes. It takes time, however, and in the meantime we have to deal with the contamination,” Porter said.

“Some of the lakes around here are now contaminated with E. coli and other pathogens like Salmonella, and these will be a problem after the weather warms up. There will also be more leptospirosis in livestock and wildlife, since that organism thrives in wet conditions. If livestock have not been vaccinated, we’ll be seeing a lot more diseases. Most people in the cattle industry keep up the vaccinations for blackleg and other clostridial diseases, and that will help prevent some fatalities,” Porter said.

Clostridia are commonly found in the soil, and can survive a long time in dormant spore form, coming to life later when conditions are right. “Whenever you stir up that soil and bring these anaerobic bacteria up out of the bottom, you’ll see more problems — and more clostridial diseases and other diseases caused by anaerobic bacteria, such as foot rot. A good example is the fact that we see more cases of foot rot in a newly cleaned pen than in an old, dirty lot. When you clean it, you dig up and expose the dormant bacteria. If you are bringing in new cattle and they come off the truck into that newly cleaned lot — and have cuts/nicks/scrapes/bruises on their feet or damaged soles from the truck ride, they readily become infected,” he said.

“No one really has an answer regarding how to deal with the myriad of problems we’re now facing in the aftermath of the flood. We pray for the best and do what we can, and try to educate people about the hazards. Don’t take your kids out to wade in the river or pond just yet. These areas need to flush out, clean out, etc. for a while, before they are safe,” he said.

“We can keep checking the water for nitrates and coliform counts, and do some basic things, but it’s all going to take time. There will be more flood coming, with all the mountain water coming down as the snow melts. The Missouri River flooded about seven years ago after excessive runoff; it hit the dams and they got full and had to start dumping the water on downstream,” Porter said. Now some of the dams are compromised from the recent flood, and some are washed out and gone. The high water will just come on through.


Sand washed into many areas, covering cropland. “This will create a problem this year in terms of growing adequate feed. Anyone living in the lowlands has suffered damage to pastures and fields,” Porter said.

In some of the bottomlands, farmers and ranchers will need heavy equipment to come in and move sand. There will be a huge amount of cleanup and repair required before those fields, pastures, barnyards, etc. can be used again. Anyone in those flood-shed areas got hammered with sand, silt, debris, cornstalks, etc. piled up against fences. “In some places the fences are so buried that they can’t be repaired; people will just have to bulldoze them away and start over. The debris is too wet to burn, and then there are the toxins and contaminants. Everything is moldy,” he said.

“Most people are calling this a 500-year flood; no one expected it and no one was prepared for it. We now have a lot of repair to do, rebuilding infrastructure. Some if this will take several years. The grass along the river bottoms and in the trees is buried, and this has an impact on wildlife as well as the livestock. Some of those places are full of sand,” he said.

“If a farm is all in the bottom land, the tractors, combines, equipment has all been flooded. The damage covers a widespread area in several states; when you add it all up it’s a lot bigger than damage from a major hurricane like Katrina. We didn’t have as much human loss, but there’s been more animal death loss and suffering,” Porter said.

All the dead animals are another health concern. “In some areas the only solution is to use big dozers to dig trenches to bury them. Some carcasses washed downstream, miles from where they originated. Producers north of here had a lot of cows drown and float down the river, ending up on other farms,” he said.

Some of the livestock that survived ended up far from home. “You may not have lost all your cattle but they’re missing and mixed with other cattle somewhere else. Unless they are identified with brands, you may never get them back. You might find someone else’s cow in your herd but have no way to know who she belongs to. She might have an ear tag but no other identification,” Porter said.

People with hog farms in the low areas lost all their animals. “Some of the smaller areas can be cleaned up, but the cattle industry was probably hit hardest, just because ranchers depend on the grass, clean water and large areas — that are now severely compromised.” ❖

— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at

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