Florida cattle ranchers take direct hit from Hurricane Charley

EDITOR'S NOTE — The following statement from the Florida Cattlemen's Association details the impact of Hurricane Charley on the state's cattle industry. The statement describes the situation in Florida as of Aug. 19. At presstime, some cattle markets were re-opening, while others remained closed due to structural damage.

Sixty-three percent of Florida ranches, stocked with approximately 1.2 million head of beef cattle, were significantly damaged by Hurricane Charley. The storm destroyed fencing and caused a lot of farm structural damage on approximately nine million acres of cattle ranches in Florida.

The state's largest populations of cattle are located within 14 of the 25 counties designated as federal disaster areas. Charlotte, Desoto, Polk, Hardee, Highlands and Osceola counties were the areas where cattle ranches suffered the most damage.

However, the public should be reassured that Florida's food supply for beef cattle is safe. Fortunately, based on our communications with all of our cattle ranchers, their employees and families, they are healthy and whole with no reported loss of life.

In preparation for the storm, many ranchers tied open the interior gates of their ranches to give their cattle the ability to access more drinking water and have mobility to dryer, higher ground. A ranch's routine pasture rotation is often thrown off by a period of heavy rain, but allowing cattle to roam a larger range insures they have access to adequate grazing.

During storms, cattle generally get along pretty well in pastures as long as some debris does not hit them. Frankly, they are safer in a pasture than in a confined structure that may collapse on them. However they do need dry ground to lie on and to graze. Cattle move away from standing water in pastures, primarily to avoid mosquitoes.

Unlike other livestock, cattle are not typically kept in structures so flooding is less of a concern. Also, supplemental feed is usually not necessary for cattle on range during summer months as long as they have access to dry grassland for nourishment. Many cattle are lost every year in Florida due to lightning strikes, but there have been very few reports of any cattle fatalities from Hurricane Charley.

Members of the Florida Cattlemen's Association are attempting to access financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) are providing guidance to the Florida Cattlemen's Association on FEMA application procedures. Ranches are in need of FEMA financial assistance primarily for structural repairs, fencing and debris removal. Early indications are that the cattlemen must follow a county-by-county application process for FEMA funds.

Florida's Secretary of Agriculture, Charles Bronson, met with officials from the Florida Cattlemen's Association and toured some of the ranches impacted by the storm. The Florida Department of Agriculture is conducting a statewide damage assessment of the cattle industry. The Florida Cattlemen's Association is working with personnel of the University of Florida Extension Service and Department of Agriculture to get fence building material, chainsaws, and equipment such as generators available to rural areas.

The Florida Cattlemen's Association has confirmed that Florida Governor Jeb Bush's executive order number 04-182 issued Aug. 10, 2004 includes transporting of cattle and other livestock. This order grants the Florida Department of Transportation the authority to permit movement of vehicles transporting agricultural products or equipment to or from areas affected by Hurricane Charley.

Raising the allowable weight limit on trucks will allow the rapid movement of cattle out of areas where land is wet or flooded to areas with more dry land. The Governor's order also raised tonnage limits for the transportation of timber, citrus, dairy products and drinkable water.

The Florida Cattlemen's Association is coordinating crews of volunteers to help repair massive amounts of damage to fencing, farm structural damage and gathering of stray cattle. The priority of the volunteer effort is to repair perimeter fencing around ranches that border roads to reduce stray cattle and keep the roadways safe.

The ground at a few ranches is too wet for the use of heavy equipment, including front-end loaders and track hoes, to move trees and make necessary repairs. In these cases, volunteers are transporting cattle to ranches with dry land. The state headquarters for the Florida Cattlemen's Association also incurred some structural damage.

The Florida Cattlemen's Association is a statewide industry organization consisting of 4,200 beef producers representing approximately 95 percent of the beef cattle population in the state.

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