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Nebraska cattle producers resilient after floodNebraska cattle producers resilient after flood

The recovery will take time, but producers remain focused on the long-term viability of their family operations.

October 25, 2019

9 Slides

By Alyssa Scholz

It's been said that tough times reveal true colors. The natural disasters this past spring exposed the true nature of Nebraska cattlemen and women — and that nature is strong and resilient.

In March, a bomb cyclone swept across the state. In this rare phenomenon, snowfall combined with heavy rain and extreme winds, affecting each part of the state differently.

Northeastern Nebraska was most affected by flooding, while northwestern Nebraska received blizzards. These record-breaking storms are perhaps the worst Nebraska has seen in more than a half-century.

The storm caused road damage, livestock death and property loss. Initial total livestock losses are estimated to be more than $400 million, and crop loss is even greater. Months later, in what remains after the havoc, beef producers across the state have shown perseverance, passion and resilience. They are not looking back. They are looking forward to recovery.

Looking ahead with optimism

Despite the challenges of this year's flood, Leah Peterson, a Nebraska cattlewoman, presses on. Her family maintains a commercial cow-calf operation and raises registered Polled Herefords, as well as dual-registered Native Shorthorns.

In addition, their operation entails several thousand acres of irrigated and dryland corn and alfalfa. The ranch was homesteaded by Leah's great-great-grandmother and her brother. Upon arriving in 1878, they settled along Clear Creek. These two families grew and contributed to building the first schools, churches and businesses in that area. The frame house built in the 1890s is the ranch headquarters today. 

In 1919, Leah's great-grandparents bought their first registered Native Shorthorns, and their cattle operation blossomed from there. "I am part of the fifth generation at our family farm, and our children plan to be the sixth," Leah says. "We feel a sense of loyalty to the past and don't want to disappoint the people that sacrificed so much to get started raising cattle so many years ago."

Many century-old operations such as the Petersons' were permanently affected by the weather. The floods damaged operations in the area in different ways. Multiple flood events affected Clear Creek Farms and moved giant slabs of ice down the creek. The creek usually flows 6 feet wide but swelled up to more than a half-mile wide during the flooding in March.

As a result, miles of fence were washed out and damaged. Topsoil eroded in pastures and fields. Roads were washed out, and dams and bridges were destroyed. Many acres of alfalfa were killed off by standing water, and many cornfields could not be planted at all. In some areas, standing water still remains.

Although their cattle numbers initially weren't significantly affected by the flooding, producers suffered a higher-than-normal loss to their spring 2019 calf crop. The extreme weather conditions, cold, mud and stress will continue to have an effect on their operations for many years to come. These producers worry that their farms — and their legacies — will disappear forever.

"After going through events like this past spring, we find ourselves asking if it's worth it," says Todd Geiken of Eagle Hills Ranch. It only takes a second for this Dawson County cattle producer to answer his own question: "It absolutely is." He should know.

The Geiken family started farming in the hills near Farnham, Neb., in the early 1900s. Throughout the years, their cattle numbers declined to the point of barely hanging on. But Geiken and his brothers decided to bring herd numbers back from the brink. It's all about work ethic.

"My parents and grandparents have brought us up on this hard work that all ends with the goal of feeding the world," he says.

Producers helping producers

Sometimes, however, tenacity is not enough to overcome disaster.

With so many ranchers suffering, the Nebraska Cattlemen's Association organized the Nebraska Cattlemen Disaster Relief Fund. The program is designed to help beef producers meet the needs of livestock by supplying hay, feed and fencing materials. All of the proceeds stay in Nebraska. So far, the disaster relief fund has raised $1.7 million dollars from 26 states and two countries. 

Mike Drinnin, Nebraska Cattlemen's Association president, says calls from people across the country came into the association. Callers were offering support both financially and physically.

"We started getting truckloads of hay from surrounding states and placing them in central locations around Nebraska for farmers to come pick up," Drinnin says.

At first, the hay remained unused. It puzzled organizers, but Drinnin knew exactly why. "Every producer assumed their neighbor had it worse off and didn't want to take the opportunity away from someone else," he says. Despite difficult times, these Nebraska cattlemen and women looked out for each other.

Looking forward, Drinnin adds, "While recovery from the natural disaster may take time, generation after generation, Nebraska ranchers prove they are resilient."

Scholz is a junior studying agricultural communications at Iowa State University.

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