When the cows come home
by Wally Northway
Published: May 16,2010
Central Mississippi cattlemen slammed by April 24 tornado
Since the deadly April 24 tornado ripped through Central Mississippi, Tammy Swarek has been on the back roads of Holmes County, offering assistance and comfort to cattlemen who were victims of the storm. Considering her personal losses, Swarek’s efforts are a sublime act of kindness and selflessness.
“We got slammed,” Swarek said. “The first thing we had to do was cut a horse out of a tree.”
A six-year cattle rancher. Swarek lost not only her farm, but her home, as well. She and her 12-year-old son, who suffers from autism, are currently staying with friends in Jackson.
“My son doesn’t understand why we can’t go home,” Swarek said. “We need help.”
While the storm system offered row croppers some beneficial rain, the massive tornado, the largest in state history, dealt a blow to the cattle industry.
Surprisingly, herds largely survived the storm, a fact Agriculture Commissioner Lester Spell called “miraculous.” However, downed fences and destroyed facilities and equipment have cattle farmers, many part-time ranchers who supplement their income with their herd, in dire straits.
“Cattle are bringing about $1-$1.15 per pound,” Spell said. “So, the loss of one 400-500 pound cow means a loss of about $500 — just one cow. It is a tough, tough situation.”
Swarek has approximately 50 head of cattle when the storm struck. As of May 11, more than half were still missing.
Sammy Blossom, executive vice president of the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association, said Swarek’s case is the norm. At press time, the storm’s toll on ranchers was still being calculated.
“In situations like this, you got folks trying to work on the damage to their homes and farms, and many are also row croppers and need to get planted,” Blossom said. “You don’t hear from them for a while. So, the (Mississippi State University) Extension Service is still polling cattlemen. We won’t know for a while just how big the losses are.”
Swarek said fence posts generally stand, but the debris took out the barb wire, and the supply of wire is inadequate — if it can be obtained at all.
Clearing trees is another challenge. Swarek said the area has seen a tremendous support from volunteers, but many only have hand saws. The trees are often so massive that even a standard chainsaw is sometimes insufficient, and heavy equipment is needed to move the trees once they are cut.
In the mean time, ranchers are penning their recovered livestock as best they can. But, herds are being squeezed into space too small to support the herd. The standard ratio is one head of cattle to three acres of land. Ranchers are reporting three head or more to every acre.
“If this doesn’t change soon, the cattle are either going to start to go down — or out,” Swarek said.
Swarek said she has received promises of aid, but little has come her way. The storm devastated Yazoo City, and assistance is routinely diverted the city’s way, according to Swarek. Ranchers have been offered recovery assistance through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Conservation Program (ECP). But, ECP requires a 25 percent match from victims. Holmes County is one of the poorest in the state. Many were uninsured, and the matching requirement makers ECP participation moot.
“They might as well ask for $1 billion,” Swarek said. “And, many are simply too proud to ask for help. Generally, we have been left to fend for ourselves.”
And, the cattlemen’s struggles have grown since the April 24 tornado. The following weekend, another severe storm system spawned tornadoes and flooding. The devastation was mainly in North Mississippi. Blossom said the toll from this severe weather event is also still being totaled.
He said the herds were already weakened before the storm systems hit.
“We saw some tough winter weather,” Blossom said. “The rain and cold weakened animals, leaving them more vulnerable to the tornadoes and flooding.”
In an effort to help, the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Foundation is asking for donations in the form of fencing supplies. Fencing supplies can be coordinated for drop off at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds by calling (601) 359-1158, or coordinated directly through the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Association by calling (601) 354-8951.
Monetary contributions can be made to the Mississippi Cattlemen’s Foundation, 680 Monroe St., Jackson, MS 39202.
Cattle/calves are a significant component of the Magnolia State’s agriculture industry. According to the latest figures from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi had 14,535 cattle producers managing 960,000 head of cattle in 2009. That ranks it eighth among all Mississippi commodities.
• Coordinate directly through the Mississippi Cattleman’s Association by calling (601) 354-8951.
• Coordinate drop-off at the Mississippi State Fairgrounds by calling (601) 359-1158.
• Mississippi Cattlemen’s Foundation, 680 Monroe St., Jackson, MS 39202.
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