updated 10/27/2005 3:35:08 PM ET 2005-10-27T19:35:08

Billy Griffith still dresses like a cowboy: blue jeans, boots and cowboy hat. But the lifelong cattleman has lost most of his cattle.

Griffith owned about 150 cows, bulls and calves before Hurricane Rita ravaged his pastures last month. Just 45 survived; the rest drowned in the floodwaters that surged over Johnson Bayou on Louisiana’s southwestern coast.

Griffith had expected the storm to swerve west, into Texas.

“I was wrong, and we got caught,” he said. “When that storm turned, it was too late to get the cattle out.”

He and many other Louisiana cattlemen are now facing a shaky future.

Rita killed tens of thousands of cattle in Louisiana. Miles of the Gulf Coast’s lush pastures were scorched by salt water that left the grass dead and inedible to livestock. Some areas are still flooded, a month after Rita struck.

Economists said it is too soon to tell how badly the storm damaged the state’s cattle industry, which in 2004 was Louisiana’s second-largest agricultural sector, with about $365 million in sales.

One estimate: ‘Years away’ from normal
Scientists this week began testing the grass to see how badly the pastures are damaged, and how quickly they can be used for grazing again. The region has had almost no rain since the storm to dilute the salt in the soil.

“We’re probably looking at years away from getting back to normal,” said Kent LeDoux, manager of a Johnson Bayou cattle ranch. “With the salt on the pastures, we don’t know how long it will take for that to recover.”

Groups of cattlemen were allowed to return three days after Rita hit. Several said they saw scores of dead cows littering the fields. Some carcasses were covered up to their necks in piles of debris, with only their heads poking through.

Cattlemen on horseback began herding the survivors.

“Cowboys rounded up all the animals on high ground and the highways,” LeDoux said. “It didn’t matter whose brand was on the cow, everybody worked together to save the cow, regardless of ownership.”

The animals were jumpy and nervous after enduring the flooding and 120 mph winds and surviving for days without food or fresh water.

Estimates of up to 25,000 killed
“They were worn out from swimming so much in the water,” cattleman Robert Trahan said.

The carcasses were collected in front-end loaders and dump trucks, then taken to incinerators, though some remain in the marshes.

In all, Rita killed between 20,000 and 25,000 head of cattle in Louisiana, out of a statewide population of 180,000, according to a survey by the Louisiana State University Cooperative Extension Service.

Griffith said he lost about $100,000 worth of livestock.

He and other cattlemen said they will be forced to sell the animals that survived to cover the expense of cleaning up their drenched homes or buying new ones, and replacing the tractors and hay balers ruined by the floodwaters.

Low value for ‘storm cows’
Not even the surviving cattle are worth much. The animals are known as “storm cows,” less valuable because their health is threatened by pneumonia and digestion problems from swallowing salt water and going without fresh water.

Griffith said he expects to sell his surviving cattle, then buy more after he replaces his ruined home.

At 77, he is a third-generation cattleman who before the storm was already partly retired from the cowboy life. He said he is not sure how soon he will be raising livestock again. It depends on how soon the brown pastures turn green again.

“If we don’t get a lot of rain, it could take a couple of years,” Griffith said. “But nobody’s been through this before. So nobody knows. We’re just guessing.”

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