The bawling babies and late-night feedings were taking their toll on Richy Naisbett. One night he was up mixing formula at 1 a.m. The next, he was up until 4 a.m. Before he knew it, the nights had stretched into days and the days into weeks until … just how long had it been anyway?Two weeks? A month?Naisbett can’t say. “I’ve lost track of time,” he said with a sigh. Naisbett’s life as a rancher turned wet nurse has been a blur since Oct. 2, the day the first truckload of refugee cattle arrived at his sprawling farm in Demopolis from the hurricane-ravaged pastures of southern Louisiana.This mixed bag of frightened brood cows, skinny yearlings and stressed-out baby calves bawling for their drowned or missing mothers was the first shipment of about 1,000 bovine evacuees to find safe harbor in Alabama. About half of those, from Midway Cattle Co., in Myrtle Grove, La., are now grazing on the greener pastures of Naisbett’s Marengo County farm. The other half are divided between south Alabama cattle farmers, Rodney Rhodes of Brewton and Eric Cox of Castleberry. “When a friend needs help, they just need a yes — they don’t need all the small details to go around it,” said Naisbett, who led the effort to enlist Alabama farmers’ help in relocating the displaced Louisiana cattle. “These cattle were dumped in my lap, and their owners know that I’m going to take care of them. They don’t have to worry about it. That’s helping somebody.””If Richy tells me they’re all right, I know they’re all right. I trust him 100 percent,” said Earl Armstrong, a 61-year-old rancher from Boothville, La., who has about 300 head now being tended by Rhodes and Cox.Those 300 cattle are just about all Armstrong has left. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita whipped southern Louisiana, Armstrong lost almost everything — his home, his barns, pens, fencing and about 1,600 head of cattle. An entire lifetime of work was washed away into the Gulf of Mexico.”I had 30-something years of getting things the way I wanted them, the type cattle I wanted to have and the type of cattle that people wanted to buy, but I don’t think I’ll ever get to have it that way again,” said Armstrong. “I’m not young enough to do that. My son likes to fool with cattle. Maybe he can get them back to where they were.”Armstrong grazed his cattle on a chain of about 15 islands at the mouth of the Mississippi River, using airboats to herd them into portable pens and onto a 25-foot by 64-foot barge he navigated along the river’s narrow and winding channels. When the storm surge washed over the marshlands, 250 head of cattle at a time were swept off the island. Some he found alive 10 miles away; another, a particularly troublesome ol’ mama cow with a twisted horn, was found lying dead on a boat dock 30 miles away.”I’ve always been the kind of person — and it’s not always a good thing — but I never say no,” said Naisbett. “… These owners were in a jam and I said, ‘Just start sending them. I’ll deal with them when they get here.’ There was no choice — those cattle were standing in knee-deep water, belly-deep water, nothing to eat, no fresh water to drink.”Once the rescue and recovery began, Naisbett was there to offer a hand. Not only did he offer about 1,120 acres of his own pasture, but he also worked with Rhodes to take in about 145 head, including about 15 of those bawling babies that had kept Naisbett up so late bottle- or tube-feeding.”Rodney’s kind of like me,” said Naisbett. “When I call Rodney and say, ‘Hey, buddy, I’m in a jam,’ he’ll say ‘What do you need?'”Rhodes will receive some payment for weight gain per pound, but it’s more to offset expenses than to earn a profit. “We’ll keep the calves until they’re ready to be weaned, and we’ll send a healthy calf back to Louisiana and send the mama cows up to Richy for winter grazing,” said Rhodes.
Rhodes, in turn, enlisted Cox to take in about 125 cows and six bulls. Naisbett said the cattle appeared to have lost about 25 percent of their body weight and were extremely dehydrated when they arrived after a six-hour truck ride. Besides that, he said, they appeared to be very stressed, skittish and disoriented.
He said the calves should gain enough weight that the owners will be able to recoup some of their loss. But the thought of tending the brood cows for what may be as long as a year admittedly makes him anxious. He figures that the brood cows cost about 95 cents a head each day in hay, feed and antibiotics. “Those cattle lost so much weight, and for them to be able to re-breed in the spring, they’re gong to have to be in pretty good condition,” Naisbett said. “They’re in the worst shape going into the hardest time of year, and that’s going to make it very difficult for them and hard for me to cash flow it. If the cattle associations or other groups want to help, that’s where they can help, in the cost of carrying some of those mother cows through the winter. That’s the big expense.”It’s got me in a crunch,” Naisbett admitted, “but what do you do? These people are friends, and they have nothing. They’ve lost everything.”Naisbett is so touched by the Louisiana farmers’ plight that he’s begun a push for a livestock emergency preparedness plan with neighboring Gulf states. He says a main ingredient of such a plan should be getting the livestock to safe ground, and then sending aid to the livestock producers.”I think the state of Alabama was going to offer help to the Louisiana people, but the trouble there is the cattle have got to come out of the area,” Naisbett said. “They can’t send a bunch of feed and supplies down to that area because the cattle have got to come out! …It would be great if the help would come here because here is where the cattle are.”Perry Mobley, director of the Beef, Dairy, Hay and Forage Divisions of the Alabama Farmers Federation, said Naisbett’s proposal is “very do-able” and would enlist the help of state veterinary agencies in neighboring states. It may even involve working with the National Hurricane Center in Miami to formulate a model plan using storm track history. “Logistics, in general, would be a huge part of it,” said Mobley. “If a storm hit in Area X and so many cattle were displaced, what is the most likely place that those cattle could be moved to? What is the most likely, most efficient, most economical way to get supplies to those people? “The last two years have taught us a lot of lessons about agricultural damage and livestock displacement due to two large hurricanes.”Such an effort would take awhile to get up and running, he added.In the meantime, Naisbett keeps on, getting by with a little help from his friends.”It costs me a lot of money to keep it going, and it puts me in a financial crunch,” he said. “But I’m going to do my best to make sure these cattle stay healthy. That’s what I took the responsibility to do, and I’m going to do it.”