Before the opening of the Nebraska State Fair on Friday morning, a large area of Central Nebraska received another pounding of heavy rain and was inundated by flooding from overnight thunderstorms.

The latest rain is just one in an endless series of natural calamities that have struck Nebraska since last fall. It has played havoc with the livelihoods of farmers and ranchers as well as the state’s rural farm-to-market infrastructure.

Those natural disasters were the focus on a Federal Disaster Assistance Roundtable at the Nebraska State Fair Friday morning. USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue was to attend, but weather difficulties forced him to cancel his visit to the State Fair.

But the roundtable discussion continued, featuring Sen. Deb Fischer, Rep. Adrian Smith and Gov. Pete Ricketts, along with farmers and ranchers and other federal and state officials.

Over the last 30 days, much of Central Nebraska has received rainfall that was as much as 400 percent of average for mid-summer. After a wet fall, a bitterly cold and snowy winter, a major mid-March storm that caused significant flooding throughout the state and continued heavy rains, Nebraska farmers and ranchers at Friday’s program told elected officials and government agency directors that the ongoing natural disasters are creating much uncertainty with fall’s harvest nearing in just a few weeks.

On top of the natural disasters plaguing the state’s ag community, commodity prices continue to lag because of trade concerns in the ethanol industry and a major fire at a beef production plant in Kansas has disrupted the beef markets.

Good news for western Nebraska

One piece of good news released at the roundtable was the announcement of the USDA determination of an insurable event for those affected by the collapse of an irrigation tunnel near Fort Laramie. The tunnel collapsed July 17, cutting off irrigation to more than 100,000 acres of farmland in Nebraska and Wyoming at a crucial time during the growing season.

The format of the roundtable had producers tell elected leaders and government agency personnel about the many ongoing problems that are impacting the state’s agricultural industry due to the weather.

Quick government response

Steve Nelson, a farmer from the Axtell area and president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, said the year started with a bitter winter that impacted the state’s cattle industry. Tight financial margins for the commodities they sell and the additional costs incurred due to weather disasters continue to challenge farmers and ranchers throughout the state.

Nelson said he and many producers were grateful about the timeliness of government disaster response, considering the immense scope of those disasters.

He also praised federal and state agencies for the flexibility they showed about reporting deadlines and maneuvering regulations that would have hampered recovery from the disasters.

The producers also said that because the natural disasters are still ongoing, they have yet to fully assess the total disaster damage.

Cattle producers hit hard

Mike Drinnin of Columbus, president of the Nebraska Cattlemen, said the quick government response to the needs of producers and rural communities was much appreciated. But he said “it is not over” when it comes to the devastation the weather has brought to Nebraska this year.

The bitter winter and March flooding woes were responsible for the loss of as much as 10 percent of the state’s calf crop earlier this year. Along with the lost income from the death of cows and calves, there was also the added cost of buying hay and feed for their cattle because of the severe winter.

Adding to their woes were the thousands of miles of farm-to-market roads, bridges and culverts and other drainage systems damaged by repeated flooding. The loss of that transportation infrastructure is an additional uninsurable cost livestock producers had to endure.

As the summer growing season winds down with fall approaching, Drinnin said reliable hay supplies are a concern, especially if producers have to battle another severe winter.

Nebraska is one of the nation’s leading cattle feeding states. He said feedlots, because of the heavy precipitation this year, are struggling. Wet lots are impacting cattle’s health and rate of gain, and that adds more costs and lowers operating margins for feedlot operators.

Drinnin said because of wet conditions, feedlot operators have had to travel far and wide to get dirt for their lots that is dry.

“That’s another additional cost they have,” he said.

Shortage of hay to feed cattle

Also, because of the destructive nature of the flooding that heavily eroded fields, pasture and streambanks, livestock producers lost valuable grazing land, which forced them to buy additional hay and feed.

Tanya Storer, a Cherry County commissioner, represents a vast, lightly populated county where the cattle industry reigns supreme in Nebraska’s Sandhills.

Storer said while the Sandhills looks green this year because of the abundant moisture, it sits on top of the Ogallala Aquifer, where the water table has been steadily rising because of the excessive moisture. The high water table keeps ranchers in some areas from planting and harvesting hay that they need for feed for the upcoming winter.

Other grass that has been in storage is losing much of its protein content because of the heavy rain.

Infrastructure issues key

Storer said that loss of hay supplies will add more expenses for producers. Also, said many county roads in the sparsely populated county remain damaged. That creates another barrier for livestock producers when it comes to transporting their livestock to winter pastures or market.

Travis Woollen of Harlan County, a member of the county’s Farm Service Agency county committee, also spoke about the mounting infrastructure problems with roads, bridges and drainage systems because of flooding and heavy rain.

“It is just getting worse daily,” Woollen said. “The damage is widespread, and we still don’t know the full extent of it.”

A mental drain

Along with the physical and financial damage, the relentless series of disasters is taking a toll on the mental health of many state producers.

The combination of weather-related livestock deaths and the financial impact disasters are having on their operations has caused some producers to walk away, especially those, Woollen said, who are less experienced and can’t handle the additional stress in their lives.

In some cases, he said, those producers in despair abandoned their livestock to starve, walking away entirely from their operations.

Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that some of the highest suicide rates are in rural communities. Suicides among farmers are 1.5 times higher than the national average and could be higher because some farm suicides could be masked as farm-related accidents, according to the CDC.

The agency found a number of reasons why suicide rates among farmers and those who live in rural areas, in general, are higher than their urban counterparts. Access to mental health care is more sporadic, rural populations tend to earn less, and overall health factors tend to be lower in rural areas.

Conditions at Wood River

Curt Rohrich, a farmer from the Wood River area and a member of the Nebraska Corn Board, said his area has repeatedly been struck by bad weather this year and flooding continues to be a major concern.

In Wood River alone, more than 500 homes have been damaged by flooding this year. His farm ground was flooded and littered with debris and damaged by the erosion of floodwaters.

Rohrich praised the actions of local emergency first responders, many of whom were also impacted by the floodin, but were still the first on the scene to help and make sure the public was safe. He also gave testimony about the many neighbors who not only had flood problems of their own, but took time to help their neighbors clean up their flooding mess.

State and federal officials said that the emergency first responders and neighbors helping neighbors aided them in making their response as quick as it was to the public. They said that in many cases, they were understaffed to handle the scope of the disaster, but said they found ways to efficiently help those in need because of the flexibility of state and federal officials.

Rohrich also stressed the need for long-term government preparedness when it comes to disaster response instead of an ad hoc approach.

For example, he said the Central Platte Natural Resources District has already begun looking to do a study of the Wood River and its tributaries to determine what types of flood control projects can be constructed to minimize future flooding problems.

That type of proactive flood control project in Grand Island spared the community from many of the flooding concerns other areas have suffered during this year’s disaster-prone weather.

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I cover business, ag and general reporting for the GI Independent.

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