Many acres of pasture land were flooded in 2017. The extent of damage depends on many variables.

My mama always taught me that good things come from adversity if we put our faith in the Lord. We couldn’t see much good in the flood waters when they were causing us to have to leave home, but when the water went down, we found that it had washed a load of rich black bottom dirt across our land. The following year we had the best cotton crop we’d ever had.” —Arkansas native, Johnny Cash, with his narration before his singing, “Five Feet High and Rising.”

In 1990, I had to leave college early to help my family load all of our belongings onto hay trucks and gooseneck trailers because the Army Corps of Engineers warned us the Red River was going to crest at a level that would have flooded our home. Our belongings were stored in neighbors’ barns around the county.

My dad drove our fishing boat over pasture fences, past our flooded center pivot towers to the main channel of the river where we watched as large hardwood trees were swept by in the current, tumbling end over end. First you’d see the enormous rootball, then after a few seconds the top of the tree. During that flood, the river cut into our farm and we lost acres.

Farmers and ranchers with bottomland understand the river is a blessing and a curse. The soil is deep and rich, but on occasion the river will turn on you.

In May of this year, almost 1 million acres of farmland were under water in Arkansas; 21 of 75 counties were listed as suffering storm damage. The loss to cropland was devastating and was the focus of most of the media attention. But it stands to reason that pastures were flooded, too; however, the number of pasture and hay acres that were flooded and the economic impact of those is nearly impossible to calculate based on lack of available data.

Many factors involved

The extent of flood damage to pastures is dependent on several variables: forage species, season of flooding, and duration of submersion. Dormant plants suffer less damage from flooding, and survivability improves when temperatures are lower. Grasses have reportedly survived 60 days of submersion with cooler temperatures, whereas the same plants can be killed within 24 hours of submersion with water temperatures over 85°F. Alfalfa can be submerged for seven to 10 days when dormant, however only three to four days when actively growing.

Forage species also contributes to survivability. According to John Jennings, forage specialist for the University of Arkansas, “Bermudagrass has been reported to survive after submersion of 55 days and tall fescue survived after 35 days of flooding. Bahiagrass survived in a greenhouse trial after 84 days of submersion.”

Mike Andrews, University of Arkansas Extension agricultural agent in Randolf County said, “Depending on how much erosion we have in the particular fields, it usually takes a week to 10 days for the forage to start to regrow. Where there is complete removal of vegetation and some soil, it can take up to a year to get the forage back to original condition.”

Forages that are most likely to die when flooded include annual ryegrass and forage legumes, and those less likely to die from flooding include switchgrass, eastern gamagrass, and dallisgrass. After pastures have been flooded and the water recedes, here are the initial steps to take:

1. Check fields and remove debris that could cause harm to livestock or damage equipment.

2. Assess silt, gravel, and sand deposits.

3. Repair damage to fences, gates, and other infrastructure.

4. Assess forage condition by checking plants for root damage.

Andrews said damage was astounding when the Black River flooded over its banks in northeast Arkansas during May 2017. “Damage was fairly heavy in a lot of our fields, lots of debris and trees left when the flood went down. We also have to be concerned with the wire that was left behind from damaged fences.”

Andrews said, “Overall, it just takes considerable time to remove debris and contend with the weed pressure after a flood. When the topsoil is removed, it may take several years to get the ground back as productive as it was before the flood. I have a few producers who have ground along the Black River that stayed under water for several weeks; they will have to start from scratch to get their pastures back in shape. Fortunately, the majority of our creeks and rivers go down fairly quickly and we do not see the total loss of the forage. However, the ones that are located near the Black River suffer considerably.”

Firsthand experience

Jim Alford, a cattleman in southwest Arkansas, owns land along the Red River and is well versed in recovering pastures after flooding. In 2015, the Red River left its banks twice, once in May and again in December.

Alford said, “There’s always lots of sedimentation, fences wiped out, and big timber deposited in pastures. We usually get sand dumped on us, it can be 2 to 5 feet deep in places and in the beginning nothing will grow. Eventually, bermudagrass will come. We feed cattle in those spots to increase organic matter.

“One advantage to the sand is it doesn’t get muddy and you can drive on it. We also move excess sand into our lots or areas where it’s needed. Ideally, you could sell the extra sand, but nobody has come along and offered to buy it off me yet,” Alford said with a chuckle.

Alford has put in levies and culverts with flaps in low areas, but in 2015 all of those got washed away in the floodwaters.

Brandon Wren has 800 acres along the Red River in Miller County in southwest Arkansas. Because of the way his ranch is situated some of his land was under water for six weeks, most was under water for two weeks, and the backwaters of the flood left him with a muddy sediment about 3 inches deep. Wren explained, “Some people got sand dumped on them, I just got a slimy mud. Even a month after the flood waters receded we had to have our vehicles in 4-wheel drive to get across pastures.”

Wren had damaged fences, but the worst part of flood recovery for him was removal of debris. Once he had the debris cleaned up and the soil dried out enough, he disked the sediment into the soil. Eventually, Wren actually had a good cool-season annual crop for his rotational grazing system.

With the loss of grazeable acres, Wren had to ship yearlings out to the feed- yard at lighter weights. This proved to be a major inconvenience as the ground was too wet for semis. They had to use goosenecks to move the calves to the headquarters and then load them onto the semitrailers.

Wren said, from his point of view, he was luckier than most as the river didn’t leave him with beach sand, which can cut a farm in two. He knows of one ranch near Foreman, Ark., where 300 to 400 acres are now in the middle of the river where it cut them off from the rest of the ranch.

Producers along rivers know it’s not a question of if the river will flood them, but more a question of when. Experienced producers know when to move equipment and livestock to protect them from the flood and what to expect after the waters recede; but they also know the river is unpredictable and can still surprise them given the right weather conditions.

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 16 and 17.

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