Heavy rains and flooding are affecting livestock in Limestone County and across the region. Area producers are working to ensure their livestock get adequate nutrition and stay healthy, while contending with saturated fields and pastures.
Ashley Peek, who calls herself a “farmer's wife,” said conditions can be miserable for cattle, but the wet weather also affects pastures, fences and equipment.
“It's been a really wet fall and winter,” said Peek, the wife of fourth-generation farmer Dustin Peek of Peek Farms in West Limestone.
Like other farmers, the Peeks pray for rain in the summer but don't complain too much about rain in the winter.
For better or worse, North Alabama has had more than its share of rain in recent years. The Tennessee Valley Authority recently announced 2019 was the second wettest year on record for the Tennessee River basin with 66.47 inches of rain, though 2018 was the wettest with 67.02 inches.
David Ruf, who has a farm northeast of Athens, believes the only saving grace lately has been the temperatures, which have included periods of warmer weather. The poultry and cattle farmer said he would rather it be sunny and 35 degrees, than raining and 40 degrees.
“Other than that, it is a wreck,” Ruf said, adding he's fed his cows while wading in the mud. “It's been a challenge.”
Donna Jo Curtis of Curtis Farms in northeastern Limestone County agrees. She said it's been a workout just checking on cattle and putting out hay.
And, even though it's been warm, Curtis said the rain and mud wears cattle out too. Curtis, like Ruf, said cattle can handle a dry, cold day just fine. It's the wet weather that takes a toll on the livestock.
Area producers agree nutrition is key when it comes to keeping cattle healthy during wet weather months. Peek said cattle can be prone to respiratory illnesses like pneumonia during wet conditions. They can also get foot rot when there feet are consistently in wet, mucky conditions.
Peek Farms recently changed the way they feed by moving from hay to haylage, which is hay wrapped in plastic rather than a net or string wrap. Peek said it maintains more nutrition than regular hay.
“It's relatively new and saves us a lot of cost,” Peek said. “There's not nearly as much loss, it's not exposed to elements and the cows love it.”
She compared it to humans sealing food instead of not sealing it.
Curtis said hay that has been sitting outside in the elements is not going to be very good for the cattle. She tends to feed outside hay early in the season, then feeds hay from the hay barn.
Peek said they tend to feed higher quality hay if cattle have been exposed to difficult conditions. They grow more nutritionally dense grasses like wheat, rye and millet, instead of fescue.
Leanne Dillard, an Alabama Extension forages specialist, said even if hay was not submerged in water, heavy rains will likely decrease the quality of hay stored outside or on the ground.
“Hay that is submerged by as little as 1 foot, has little usable forage remaining,” Dillard said. “The amount of rotten hay, mold and possible contaminants in flooded hay, make it of little value and a potential hazard to livestock.”
On the other hand, Dillard said hay submerged in less than 1 foot of water may have some useable forage. However, she said the hay should be used with caution and used only to feed cattle. Her advice is to feed the dry hay, but not force the cattle to consume the wet and rotting portion of the bale.
Curtis said she's been adding protein tubs, which helps extend the hay supply. She said her cattle usually graze until November, but she started feeding hay earlier because of the drought last summer.
Landon Marks, a regional animal science and forages agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, recently said in a Cooperative Extension article that livestock providers should consider adding more hay or feeding sites during wet weather. He said it reduces competition around feeding areas and allows cattle to receive appropriate nutrition.
Kim Mullenix, an Alabama Extension animal science specialist, said an animal's energy requirements differ during heavy rains and flooding.
“Energy requirements of animals rise due to an increase in their maintenance requirements,” she said. “Extra energy is expended trying to get out of the water, walk in mud, etc.”
Some cows already have calves and others are starting to calve. Cows are not only heavier as they try to make way through mud, but they are also working to find a dry place to lay or for calves to lay.
“It wears them out,” Curtis said.
Curtis uses feeding pads — made of geotextile fabric and gravel — in her pastures to keep down the wear, but said in order to clean them in this kind of weather, she has to push the cattle off.
Peek also knows the problems that come along with feeding cattle in the pasture. She said wet conditions cause grass and ground loss. It's also difficult to get pastures seeded and fertilized without destroying what grass is already growing, she said.
Mullenix advised producers to identify areas in the pasture that are well-drained and tend to dry out faster when feeding hay. Farmers can also minimize vehicle traffic by using smaller vehicles such as an ATV or checking cattle on foot.
Curtis, who called days like Wednesday “high boot days,” said cattle could be a little thinner come April and May.
“When you have a drought and now it's so wet, it affects weaning weights,” Curtis said. “Not only that, but mothers don't have the nutrition they normally have.”
Still, Curtis is amazed by a cow's ability to thrive in inclement conditions.
“God gives them instinct,” she said. “It's amazing.”