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The need for Ag-Based Risk Assessments

The Union Pacific Railroad played a great role in establishing a small populace in what was to become our 44th. Until the late 19th century, the area of what is now Wyoming and the Dakotas was not a popular nor easy place to take up residence. Wyoming became a U.S. territory in 1868 and became a state in 1890.

In 1866, Nelson Story Sr. drove approximately 1000 head of Texas Longhorns through Montana to Wyoming along the Bozeman Trail. The drive holds its place in history as the first cattle drive to the new territory. The Wyoming Stock Growers Association was founded in 1873 and is still active to this day. Wyoming became a hub for beef growers almost immediately and the territory quickly became home to about 5.7 million cattle before 1885.

Through much of the late 1870s and into the 1880s, cooler summers and mild winters meant that feeding the animals was relatively easy: grass and feed was typically pretty plentiful. But everything changed in the winter of 1886-1887.

90 percent of the open range’s cattle was rotting into the thawing earth

A blazing hot summer had scorched the prairies, so when snow started falling in early November much of the frontier’s livestock were already starving and ill equipped for a hard winter. The problem became a catastrophe when, on January 9, 1887, a blizzard hit, covering parts of the Great Plains in more than 16 inches of snow. Winds whipped, and temperatures dropped to around 50 below zero.

As America would have it, there was no plan for this and individual ranchers and farmers had not prepared for such an event. Few farmers had stored hay for their cattle so, with the grass under 16 inches of snow and snow drifts up to dozens of feet high, there was no grass available.

What cattle was not killed by the freezing temperatures soon died from starvation. When spring arrived, millions of the animals were dead, with around 90 percent of the open range’s cattle rotting into the thawing earth.

It was recorded and reported that dead cattle clogged up rivers and spoiled drinking water. Many ranchers went bankrupt and others simply called it quits and moved back east where conditions appeared less punishing.

Ultimately, the disaster altered not just the development of the west, but also the direction of America’s agriculture. Ranchers stopped keeping such gigantic stocks of cattle and began larger farming operations in order to grow food for the animals they had. Most also quit the open range, where livestock could roam far from grain reserves, in favor of smaller, fenced-in grazing territories.

Today one can travel west on Interstate 80 and view the organized farm/ranches that are all but self-sufficient with massive hay fields surrounding gigantic livestock operations.

It was an incident that was not only catastrophic, but it was enlightening. It changed thought patterns and “protocols” if you will, thus changing the WAY things were done and monitored.

Just a few days ago a massive column of black smoke arose to our west here in Texas. A large, historic explosion had taken place at the South Fork Dairy in Castro County. Of the 15 or so dairies that are in Castro County, the South Fork Dairy was the newest one to Castro County.

The explosion this week was of course accompanied by a large fire that spread through buildings and holding pens, challenging firefighters as well as emergency management. According to the County Sheriff, the South Fork Dairy was less than a year old and there have been no previous fires at the dairy.

As the Texas Panhandle is becoming home to more and more dairies almost monthly, this week it was the farmers that were looking for information and education as to what can be accomplished by risk assessments.

Another regional dairy farmer was interviewed on the local station and commented that detailed plans coupled with an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats are critical to today’s dairies.

The massive explosion here in Texas killed 18,000 cattle, a staggering number when compared to almost any disaster except the Wyoming blizzard in 1886-87.

Although a thorough investigation is underway, there is still a lot of speculation around the cause of the fire. One such speculation is that there was a build up of methane as large dairies burn methane from cow manure to generate electricity for their large operations, but some pointed to the possibility of improperly stored nitrate-based fertilizer which could have caused an “Oklahoma City-type explosion on the property.

In 2020, the Bubbins Farm, a dairy farm near the New York-Canada border, burned two livestock barns and killed an estimated 400 cows.

While the Wyoming blizzard still apparently holds the record for cattle death by tragedy, this week’s fire was the biggest single-incident death of cattle in the country since the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), a Washington-based animal advocacy group, began tracking barn and farm fires in 2013. The explosion and subsequent fire prompted calls from AWI for new federal laws to prevent barn fires which kill hundreds of thousands of farm animals each year (about 6.5 million farm animals have died in such fires in the last decade, most of them poultry).

As local authorities begin to figure out how to dispose of 18,000 carcasses, the rest of us should begin to consider what steps should be taken and how we can learn from this experience like the cowboys learned from the blizzard of 1886-87.

“Food loss”, defined as food produced for human consumption, which for various reasons leaves the supply chain, can be assigned to a group of new risks. Moreover, food losses represent a missed opportunity to improve global food security, especially in our present economic climate. I have heard talk that the dairy will probably not re-open because while they were probably insured against a loss like this, there are no cattle to replace the dead ones.

A massive fire at a farm in central Maine last month

While this week's fire barely made the news and this is perhaps the first you are hearing about it, an incident like this has global implications as does the mass-killing of poultry I have written about earlier this year due to bird flu. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that each year, approximately one-third of all food produced for human consumption in the world is lost or wasted. Global food security could be improved through the mitigation of food loss and food waste and that includes mitigating fires, explosions and disease.

What needs to happen is that farms and ranches need to begin to have risk assessments performed by professionals that can help them mitigate risk and therefore minimize losses that could put them out of business.

This process could be intricate and extensive or simple and easy but it needs to start somewhere just as I suggested in my blog regarding risk assessments after the Nashville church-school shooting.

The starting point is to perform a detailed analysis of the historical data available (such as the AWI reports and to combine that data with real-world incidents such as this last explosion. We need to watch and pay attention to the investigation into this incident and as quickly as a verdict is in on the cause, begin to actively seek answers on how to prevent it from ever happening again.

Ranches and farms need to define threats that could reduce the quality of what they provide whether that be beef, chicken, turkey, milk, etc. They must answer the question, “What could change the nutritional value, quality or safety of my product(s)?”

EG Weiss & Associates is presentloy working on new tech that could protect farms from wildfires

We all know the phrase “supply chain issues” by now. Another question to answer is “How do I prevent becoming the clog in the supply chain?”. I am sure that the dairy farm in Castro County never dreamed they could possibly endanger supply or effect market price by having such a disaster on their property but one news source reported that 18,000 cattle is about 20% of the number of cattle brought to market each day so while this will not have a long-term effect at the store, we are now short one dairy and that one day’s 20%. I have no information on how much milk was produced by that dairy.

Farms and ranches need to have a risk assessment performed that will leave them with the knowledge as to how possible an incident can be and how to mitigate it, prevent it or remove it completely from the matrix of hazards. It is mandatory in some countries for farms and ranches to have a completed Risk Assessment Document on file that includes not only issues such as I have pinpointed but even tractors in need of repair and other smaller issues.

A farmers job is hard enough so I am not proposing regulations that starve out or choke the rancher-farmer community, but we need to learn from history whether it be from the 1800’s or last week.

Farmers make decisions every day that affect farming operations. Many of the factors that affect the decisions they make cannot be predicted with complete accuracy; this is risk. Farming has become increasingly risky as farmers become more commercial. Farmers need to understand risk and have risk management skills to better anticipate problems and reduce consequences.

Risk affects production such as changes in the weather, wildfires, barn explosions and the incidence of pests and diseases. Equipment, technology and system breakdown can be a risk and as I mentioned, can even influence market prices.

Finally, there are risks related to the health and well-being of the farmer or rancher and his family and the supply of labor for the farm such as COVID-19.

The more complex the risk, the more difficult it becomes for farmers to make an informed decision and this is where bringing in a professional consultant that performs risk assessments can prove valuable, especially one that has a background and understanding of agriculture. For effective decisions to be made, farmers and ranchers need information on many aspects of the business.

These good folks are the ones that put food on America’s tables and they need to find ways of recognizing and dealing with risk to protect what they do for our country amidst the uncertainties of the future.

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