Dealing with pasture, forage issues from hurricane

By Paul Gonzalez - Contributing columnist
Paul Gonzalez -

As a result of Hurricane Florence, water is high in southeastern and south central NC with many fields flooded and farms inaccessible. Farmers will be assessing damage to fields and property as the water recedes, and we are getting many questions about the likely impact on hay, pastures and cattle health. This information is intended to help extension agents answer questions they are getting from their farmers and will be reviewed for release to producers soon.

Livestock that died during event

Any animals that died specifically as a result of the storm need to be documented as soon as possible. Photos and a written affidavit to document the losses will be needed to apply to the Livestock Indemnity Program.


Pasture-based livestock producers need to assess and document loss of hay as soon as it is safe to do so. If a producer lost hay they should take photos of the bales (when bales are still on the property), or the place the bales were stored. Make sure to write down the number of bales, type and quality of hay, and the estimated weight (or the size i.e. 4×4, 4×5, etc.). Contact the FSA office and visit them with this information as soon as possible. Our understanding is that hay losses will be covered under the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP).

This program will help pay producers for their hay losses. To qualify for the program, hay had to be baled, and the program will not cover hay that was cut and on the ground (not likely in this event due to the very wet conditions that preceded Matthew). Also, this program only covers hay purchased to feed or hay cut to feed. It does not cover hay that was cut to sell, so producers will likely need to document that they do own livestock and planned on feeding the hay that was lost. Farmers need to file a notice of loss to the FSA office within 30 days of the loss, and a final application needs to be made by Nov. 1.

Feeding damaged hay. After Hurricane Floyd in 1999 we went to the flood zone after the water receded to determine the impact on hay that had either been flooded (totally or partially submerged in water) or that had been on higher ground out of the flood, but still impacted by 10-15 inches of rain in a 24 hour period.

In Matthew (2016) we inspected hay that had been flooded to various extents to see how much hay was left that was OK to feed. Hay that had been flooded in more than 1 foot of water was found to be severely damaged with little usable forage remaining. The amount of rotted hay and mold in this flooded hay makes it of little value, and potentially a hazard to livestock. Hay that didn’t go under flood waters was in remarkably good shape with only a couple of inches of damage to the outside of bales which was consistent with what you see in normal outside storage. Hay that only had a few inches of flood water on it had some hay that was OK to feed. Our best advice on flood hay is that if it was in at least 1 foot of water for one day then it is likely in very poor shape and should not be fed, but rather counted as a loss. If the flood water was less than one foot up on bales, then it is likely that. It is appropriate to feed the dry part of the hay that was not damaged by flood waters as long as cattle are not forced to consume the wet and rotting portion of the bale.

Due to this difference between hay that went under water and hay that was on high ground, it is critical that producers carefully document hay that was flooded, relative to hay that was simply heavily rained on. It would be good to have an extension agent or other official verify these losses in person, but given the number of producers impacted and difficulty traveling in the flood zone a producer affidavit with photos is the immediate need, but it is a good idea for producers to call their extension agent to tell them their situation and to get advice.

Hay that was flooded in storage barns should be removed as soon as possible because it will start to heat and spontaneous combustion is a real possibility. This hay could be used for erosion control or composted, but likely will have little usable feed value. Any hay that was severely damaged by flood and determined to not be suitable for feeding should be disposed of by burning or composting.


Many pastures were flooded and likely will be severely impacted. Again, based on our experiences following Floyd and Matthew we would expect bermuda grass and bahia grass pastures to survive up to a week or more under flood waters, but fescue pastures likely will not survive more than a couple of days of submersion. Winter annuals that were seeded before the hurricane also are unlikely to survive flooding, but in many cases the annuals have not been planted yet. Once it is possible to get back into the fields it will be critical to remove the bermuda grass residue by cutting and baling, and then to get the winter annuals drilled in so that they can contribute to winter feed needs as planned. This is especially critical for produces who use winter annuals as part of their animal waste management plan. It is important to remove excessive residual forage so that the seeded annuals can emerge and grow without a lot of shading and competition for nutrients. Depending on the extent of damage it might be possible to graze off the residue, but producers should be aware that there will be issues with dirt and other contaminants that came with the flood on the standing forage, and livestock are unlikely to readily eat it. Setting cutters very low (1-2 inches) will be important because much of the existing vegetation will be lodged. If there is not a great amount of residue and it is very flat on the ground then drilling through the residue is possible.

In eastern North Carolina it is possible to establish winter annuals until mid-November, but the earlier planted the higher potential autumn and winter feed production will be. Because of the heavy leaching that has occurred, it will additional nitrogen application will be needed (about 50 lbs of N per acre is the maximum level this late in the growing season). The ELAP program will also cover losses to pasture, and our understanding that is up to 150 grazing days, but given that the water is receding quickly it is not clear how that will be determined. We did not have this program during past floods, so we will be working with FSA to clarify the procedure for producers and get that information to you as soon as we have it. At a minimum, producers will already have to have reported their pasture acres to the FSA office, and will need to show on an aerial map where the flood waters reached, and some proof that livestock had to be removed.

Again, making notes on a map and keeping a log of the timeline of when flood waters receded and the days of grazing lost is important. If the last 30 days growth of bermuda grass was left in fields and is lost for grazing then you can estimate about 3000-4000 lbs of grazable material per acre and that would be about 100-150 cow grazing days per acre.

Physical damage to fences and grazing lands

Removal of debris, repair of land, and repair of fences may be covered by the Emergency Conservation Program. This program is designed specifically for dealing with the cleanup following a storm and the repair of damage that occurred. A field inspection by FSA is recommended to determine eligibility for that program. It is critical that producers experiencing the loss take good pictures and document the number of feet/miles of fence that were lost.

Alternative feeds

We have had several questions about feeding alternatives given that most pasture is severely impacted and some producers also have no hay to feed. Cows can be fed on concentrates but need some forage or other fiber source to stay in good digestive health. Cows can be fed up to 15 lbs of whole shell corn or other concentrates, and about 2 lbs of a protein supplement along with 5 lbs of hay. Some producers have damaged swine or poultry feed they wish to give to their livestock, but be aware Swine and Poultry Feeds Should not be Fed to Grazing Livestock unless the company manufacturing the feeds can attest that they do not contain ruminant meat and bone meal (for all species but horses), and that they don’t contain any antibiotics or other drugs not approved for cattle or horses. Unfortunately most commercial poultry and swine feed will contain something that can’t be fed to cattle, horses, sheep or goats.

Maintaining health of grazing livestock

It is too early to know how many cattle, horses, sheep and goats were lost as a direct result of the storm, but regardless of that chronic health problems with livestock will be likely as the winter progresses. Death loss as a result of the storm needs to be documented with photos and reported to FSA as part of an application to the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP). Following previous storms we documented in the weeks following the floods severe dermatitis in some animals, and these were thought to be due to contact with the flood waters, and potentially to the ingestion of poisonous plants. During the winter months we observed animals in poor body condition, animals that had very weak calves, and higher than normal sickness and death loss. These conditions can be blamed to some extent on chronic malnutrition during the aftermath of the storm. Once it is possible, start feeding animals to regain the body condition they lost during the flood. Pregnant cows need a good supply of protein and energy for normal fetal development, so especially pay attention to them.

Be aware that feeding levels for animals that have been short on feed for several days or a week need to be higher than normal maintenance rations usually fed this time of year. Animals that have lost significant body condition due to feed restriction will need to gain weight significantly and are likely to need supplemental concentrate in addition to good quality hay or pasture. Make sure that a good quality mineral supplement is being provided and that the cattle eating it. These are always our recommendations going into winter, but this year it will be especially important given the elevated level of stress on the livestock.

Paul Gonzalez Gonzalez

By Paul Gonzalez

Contributing columnist

Paul Gonzalez is a livestock agent with the Sampson County Cooperative Extension office.

Paul Gonzalez is a livestock agent with the Sampson County Cooperative Extension office.