Dairy farmers prepare to shield cows from floods


Issue Date: February 22, 2017
By Kevin Hecteman
Dairy farmers attend a meeting in Crows Landing to discuss emergency preparedness and communication. With Don Pedro Reservoir nearly full and rivers running high, dairy evacuation plans were Topic A.
Photo/ Kevin Hecteman

The best tool for moving livestock away from a flood may be a smartphone.

When Stanislaus County dairy farmers met in Crows Landing last week to talk about emergency preparedness, they heard that one of the keys is effective communication.

"We just got everybody in the community together (to) make sure we're all on the same page, all the different individual programs are doing what they're supposed to do, and they are," Crows Landing dairy farmer Albert Mendes said.

With Don Pedro Reservoir nearly full, the Tuolumne River running fast and high near Modesto, the San Joaquin River near flood stage at Vernalis and more rain in the forecast, it's critical that dairy farmers at risk of flooding be ready to move, said Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive officer of Western United Dairymen.

"We want to make sure that people are thinking about being prepared," Raudabaugh said. "This area hasn't experienced a lot of water in many, many years. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that there could be an emergency and, do you have a plan?"

Raudabaugh said she wanted dairy farmers in the area to be cognizant of the fact that Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River and the downstream levees along the Tuolumne and San Joaquin rivers were at their limits. She said five or six dairies in the area would likely need to move their animals.

Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner Milton O'Haire said the meeting came as an effort "to get ahead of any situation that might develop."

"We wanted to open up the communication channels to the dairy industry, see what they were thinking about, what they were seeing out there with their herds or even on the levees, because some of them are helping to monitor the levees," O'Haire said.

Mendes and alfalfa grower Joe Sallaberry, both part of Reclamation District 2063, stated their confidence in the levees' ability to hold back rising river flows. The district maintains 10.63 miles of levees along the east bank of the San Joaquin River.

Sallaberry distributed small flags at the meeting for farmers to use to mark potential levee trouble spots, should they find any.

"We got some boils in there, but the boils we always had," he said. "We're always going to have them, because when they built the levee, they didn't take the dirt deep enough, so they left the sand in the bottom. So that water, with the weight of the water, just seeps through the sand and comes up to the farming area."

Mendes saw no reason for alarm.

"Only the Lord knows what the weather's going to bring," he said. "We're all very confident that the levee's in great shape. … We're just going to wait it out and see."

Raudabaugh spoke of the importance of planning ahead.

"You heard many people today talk about the confidence that they have in our current levee system and our current release structure between (the Turlock Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers," she said. "But this is about, 'What happens if … ?'"

Raudabaugh spoke of having Plan A, Plan B and Plan C.

"Plan A is the preferred route, which is that neighbors are essentially willing to enter into a rental agreement and offer to add in those cows to the milking schedule," she said. "We need a milk barn, we need a milk parlor, we need a way to milk the cows."

A second option, she said, would be to find vacant facilities where cows could be milked. Raudabaugh said her organization was putting together a list of such facilities.

"The third option is just to find a holding area that has a fence. The cows wouldn't be milked," she said, "but again, the preservation of the cow's life is more important at that stage."

In such circumstances, O'Haire said he'd work with dairy groups to spread information.

"The first thing we would probably look at is the industry through the Western United Dairymen," he said. "They have their own channels of communication. If they can handle moving their herds themselves, that's what we would rely on first. If they get into a situation where things are happening and they don't have the wherewithal to make that happen soon enough or fast enough, then they need to contact the Emergency Operations Center. From there, we can put in the request to get them help."

Raudabaugh said WUD has an "emergency communications hub" to move information beyond the group's members.

"We also work in conjunction with the cooperatives and the processors to activate that hub," she said, "so basically people that are represented by Saputo or Hilmar Cheese or CDI around here, we let them know through my communication with Milton (O'Haire)."

Technology is also helping. Raudabaugh said the California Milk Advisory Board activated its phone-alert system to notify dairy farmers of the Crows Landing meeting. Facebook also got some of the credit for spreading the word.

"Social media's been very popular," Raudabaugh said. "It's safe to say that every single dairyman in this area at least knew about this meeting."

The need to stay in touch isn't going away anytime soon, she said. Because Don Pedro Reservoir remains so full, she said dairy farmers would need to remain alert for weeks.

"This is probably going to keep being a problem through May or July as the snow runs off," she said.

Whatever happens, Raudabaugh said the farmers' strong camaraderie is their greatest asset.

"This is a really tight-knit community," she said. "I think that we're going to respond by helping each other, and I'm proud of that. Everybody around here wants to see the dairies thriving."

The TID maintains updated Don Pedro Reservoir and flow information at www.tid.com/flows.

(Kevin Hecteman is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at khecteman@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.