Wednesday morning, on a day when Clarence Brent might normally be heading into his second cutting of hay grass, the best he could hope for was to knock down the dead grass and weeds that were the only products of weeks of periodic rain and saturation.
“Trying to get this trash off there so it can grow a little grass,” Brent said between passes on his tractor. “We got so far behind with all the rain that everything died.”
Brent is one of more than 260 farmers in Lafayette County battling to stay afloat — nearly literally — as record rainfall and flooding following an already-wet spring threaten to result in total crop loss for the year. And because pastureland accounts for so much of active farmlands in many counties in southwest Arkansas, an ailing hay crop could augur further difficulties for the cattle it supports.
Brent farms about 1,500 acres in Lafayette County, about 1,000 of which are row crops. The rest is pasture that supports about 100 head of cattle, some of which he said had been on acreage inside the levee that lays to the east of the Red River before it began to flood in the last week of May. Like many cattle producers in his and neighboring counties, Brent spent much of May relocating his herd to increasingly sparse areas of pasture, as more and more of it became saturated.
Quite a fight
“This is quite a fight for folks down here,” he said. The week before, Brent and a number of other neighbors worked days on end to pile sandbags and dirt around a neighboring doctor’s home to save it from the encroaching water. But even as the river level begins to recede, he and other growers are faced with the prospect of hay shortages in the coming winter, while standing on ground still too wet to produce.
“I’m not ready to sell [cattle] now, but it may come to a point I have to cull pretty hard, because I sure can’t buy hay,” Brent said. “I could maybe sell the cows now, and buy back next spring cheaper.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, livestock sales account for about 75 percent, or more than $96 million, of Lafayette County’s agricultural market sales. Pastureland, however, makes up only about one third of all farmland in use in the county.
The ‘Red River Shuffle’
David Dillard, who raises cattle exclusively, said he and his fellow farmers had “been doing the ‘Red River Shuffle’ the past few weeks, moving cows over here, moving cows over there.” He said that each morning, he and another man had taken a small boat across several acres of pastureland now covered in feet of water to check on various groups of cattle.
Dillard said he has about 260 head of cattle, none of which had been injured or fallen ill during the flooding. He said periodic flooding was nothing new to his family, which he said had been in the area for more than a century, and that despite the immense crop damage, he believed hay would be available for purchase from neighboring counties outside the river valley.
According to the National Weather Service, rainfall in May set records at several sites throughout the state. Nearly 8.7 inches of rainfall was recorded at Texarkana, approximately 171 percent of typical rainfall in May. In one 96-hour period between May 8 and May 11 alone, nearly 7 inches of rainfall were recorded in Ashdown, located in Little River County.
Additionally, 12-18 inch rains in areas of Texas and Oklahoma resulted in flooding in southwest Arkansas as drainage accumulated in the Red River, which marks the southern border of Little River County before turning south toward Louisiana, and partitioning Miller County from Lafayette County.
The river repeatedly topped its banks in the first week of June, flooding pasturelands inside its levees. According to data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers river gage at Fulton, the river reached its 25-foot flood stage on May 29 or May 30 and continued to rise, cresting at 32 feet on June 5. As of Thursday, the river remained above flood stage at 26.3 feet.
As of the week ending June 13, Gov. Asa Hutchinson had requested that USDA declare about half of the state’s 75 counties as agricultural emergency areas, which would qualify producers for emergency loans through the USDA’s Farm Service Agency.
Other problems have accompanied the high waters, including the possibility of heavy sand or silt deposits left on pasturelands abutting the river once the waters fully recede, and the risk of anthrax infections among cattle from exposure to the churned soil.
Gators, feral hogs
Amanda Greer, Lafayette County extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said the rising water has pushed feral hogs and even alligators into crop fields. And despite the widespread flooding throughout southwest Arkansas, there’s no singularly defining condition that covers every square acre of the Red River Valley communities. There are still areas that, somehow, haven’t been overwhelmed by flooding or saturation, often within sight and surrounded by fields still several feet under water.
“It’s dry where it’s dry, wet where it’s wet,” Greer said. “Some farmers are stringing pipe to irrigate fields just a mile from where it’s flooded. It’s a weird deal.”
Ricky Burton, who farms more than 5,000 acres in Lafayette County, said he and his family were planning on building fences around their hayfields, as they prepare to move some of their 500-600 head of cattle yet again.
“Ninety percent of our meadows are under water,” Burton said, “and what few we do have left, we’re going to put the cows on that. So that’s going to cut us short on hay this winter. There’s just not enough grass left to feed them.”
For more information on flood recovery, contact your county extension office or visit www.uaex.edu.