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University of Florida provides hurricane tips for farmers

Due to the recent hurricanes, farmers in the Southeastern region of the country have seen much of their crops and livestock destroyed.

Hurricanes Charley and Frances brought more than $2 billion in damage to Florida's annual crops, state officials said, and damage is still being assessed after Hurricane Ivan. It's a hard hit when Florida's annual crop production revenue is $6.4 billion, and with hurricane Ivan and a couple months left in the hurricane season, there's no telling how much greater the damage will be.

The concerns for farmers before and after a hurricane come in many different forms, from knowing and using safety rules for clean-up; salvaging crops, grains and feeds; health maintenance for livestock and poultry; reconditioning equipment; and recovery of orchards and groves.

Stephen Olson, a UF/IFAS professor of horticulture, says that while there is not much vegetable growers can do to prevent the destruction of their crops, they can take a pro-active step towards disease prevention. Before the storm, Olson says farmers should "make sure the proper fungicides or bacteriacide materials have been applied.

After the storm, they are going to be looking at lots of wind damage and a lot of damaged leaves, and they are going to have to go back out into the fields as quickly as they can, and assess the damage, and again put out the appropriate protectant materials." He also said that farmers may have to get back out and re-fertilize, due to the heavy rains and flooding washing it away.

Another concern for vegetable growers is the management of weeds after flooding from a hurricane. The UF/IFAS "Disaster Handbook," states that in the year after a flood, new weed problems will be likely. Some of the weeds carried into the field by floodwaters may not have germinated in time to be noticed during the previous growing season. Mechanical and chemical methods need to be considered in both the flood year and subsequent years to manage weeds.

According to a University of Florida/Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) publication, by Thomas Yeager, for operators of hurricane-damaged nurseries, irrigation of salvageable container plants or plants planted after the hurricane is a short-term priority. Short-term production efforts should concentrate on removing plants from flooded areas, providing shade where needed, and preparing inventory for sale.

"Two of the highest priorities for nursery growers affected by a hurricane or a damaging storm are to, assess damage and initiate insurance filing and setting up temporary systems to keep salvageable crops and materials useable," said Jyotsna Sharma, an assistant professor of environmental horticulture for UF/IFAS, who is based at the North Florida Research and Education Center (NFREC) in Quincy, Fla.

"Suitable irrigation water might become a limited resource, and therefore, electrical conductivity of water and substrate should be monitored carefully to maintain plants during the post-storm period."

As for farmers of row crops there are also preventative measures and preparations that they can make before the storm.

"If a hurricane is coming through, peanuts should not be dug if the vines are healthy. Peanuts that have been plowed up are often blown around and many areas of the field may be flooded which can cause peanuts to rot," said David Wright, a UF/IFAS Extension specialist in cropping systems and conservation-tillage, and professor of agronomy, who is also based at NFREC-Quincy.

"Peanuts should be sprayed with a fungicide prior to the storm if there is a good likelihood that it will be 2-3 weeks to harvest or before the ground will dry out. Disease can explode under these conditions and vines deteriorate quickly causing huge harvest losses."

For cotton farmers, "it is often not advisable to defoliate cotton a week to 10 days before possible high winds since most defoliants are used with boll openers and as cotton opens it becomes more susceptible to being blown out of the boll," Wright said.

After the storm he says "farmers should wait for the soil and then the lint of the cotton to dry out before they can get back in there. They do need to get to it as soon as possible when it dries out."

The threat of trees uprooting during a hurricane is of extreme importance to farmers who own orchards or groves. If the trees are uprooted during the storm, many can be reset if the root ball is intact. Once reset, secure them with stakes to immobilize them. Set up trees that have been knocked down or washed out. Straighten trees while the soil is still wet, but work carefully to avoid breaking roots. Use props, stakes or guy wires for anchorage, although stakes are better if they can be driven deep enough to give adequate support, since props and guy wires make cultivation more difficult.

Some of the other tips the UF/IFAS "Disaster Handbook," provides for orchard farmers after the storm are: drain orchards as soon as possible by digging new drainage or by pumping, standing water that may cause root suffocation.

To prevent further erosion, use brush, prunings or other material to block gullies and keep heavy equipment out of orchards with wet soil.

Robert E. Rouse citrus grower preparedness should focus on things like personnel assignments, safety training, emergency equipment, and communications equipment. He says that "prepared management can deal with a hurricane and its consequences. By having a plan and following it, grove managers can greatly increase the odds of a grove being productive in the long-term following a hurricane."

Greenhouse growers should take precautions before the hurricane to prepare the structure and plants. Bob Hochmuth, the mutli-county Extension agent for UF/IFAS at NFREC-Suwannee Valley, whose Extension program focuses on greenhouse production, says that securing the greenhouse structure is very important to the health and survival of the plants.

"Greenhouses that are covered with two layers of plastic are kept inflated with a small blower between the two layers. Keeping this air space inflated is very important to the strength of the greenhouse structure," Hochmuth said.

"Power outages disable the blower, so a small backup generator, even if mainly used to keep this blower operating; can be critical during high winds. Backup generators are critical after a major storm to be able to run environmental controls and irrigation systems.

"Small greenhouse operators can also help secure the structure prior to the storm by securing a shade cloth over the entire greenhouse even if the shade is not required at that time. This extra layer adds security to the structure."

Hochmuth says that it also is important to make sure entry doors are properly secured so that wind doesn't destroy the crop and greenhouse structure.

After the hurricane, according to the UF/IFAS "Disaster Handbook," flooded greenhouses and shadehouses need to follow special procedures to avoid problems with new plantings. One of those procedures is to sterilize greenhouse soil before new plantings are made, which can be done through steam cleaning or chemicals.

Also, greenhouse growers should disinfect all surfaces and tools, remove flood deposits and the top inch of old greenhouse soil.

When it comes to livestock owners, they face very different issues due to hurricanes than crop farmers. Gary Hansen, a UF/IFAS Extension specialist in beef cattle and assistant professor of animal science located at NFREC-Marianna, says there are a few steps that livestock owners can take before the hurricane.

"Probably one of the most critical parts of having a storm come in, is having animals identified so that they can be traced back to who owns the animals," Hansen said. "A lot of times, fences will be knocked down by trees, animals then get out of the premise that they're on and if you don't have them ID-ed, then no one knows who owns the animals or how to get them back to the owner.

The other is: make sure you know exactly how many animals you have, count them up before the storm, then go out afterwards and count them up and make sure they're all there."

Hansen also says that letting the cattle out into a pasture is safer than putting them in a barn or other structure. "During the storm, most animals will, amazingly enough, have natural instincts as where to go and what to do," he says.

After the storm, Hansen says it's important for cattle to have a pasture that is dry. "Cattle do not like to graze under water, so farmers might need to come in and provide animals with hay." It's also important to be cautious when giving wet feed to livestock. The best way to approach giving animals wet feed is to only give it to a few at first, wait for a few days, then give it to the others.

The Handbook says that flood-damaged grains must be salvaged quickly because grain can begin to spoil within a few hours. Wet grain molds and heats up quickly, possibly resulting in spontaneous combustion.

Farmers can remove dry grain and store it separately, but the best way to save wet grain is to get the grain to a commercial dryer quickly.

There are also many diseases that are caused by standing water left over from heavy rains and floods, which can affect livestock, including blackleg, anthrax, and foot rot. If your fields or farm buildings have been flooded, take special precautions against flood-related diseases in poultry and livestock.

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