An ounce of prevention is worth a pound in cure (Animal Science Update)
(Editor’s note: Ann Hausmann is a veterinarian, teaching instructor and pre-veterinary advisor at Rutgers University-New Brunswick in the Department of Animal Sciences.)
Typically, when we are thinking about creating emergency plans for our animals these plans focus on injuries to our animals, disease outbreaks, etc. It is easy for us to forget about emergency planning related to disaster preparedness such as hurricanes, severe storms, flooding, pandemics (think COVID affecting farm staffing), tornadoes, earthquakes, and more. This is an aspect of animal care plans that are often not considered because of the challenges that come with disaster preparedness for livestock species that tend to be larger in stature and housed in larger numbers. Despite the discomfort in considering the possible disasters that can affect your farm, it is important to have plans in place that will make sure you are prepared if disaster does strike.
Most farmers consider disaster preparedness to be an impossible task for their animals but there are some simple preparations that anyone can make regardless of their species of animal(s) and the number of animals on their farm. Simply having a laminated sheet or laminated binder with the contact information for important individuals such as yourself, your neighbors, your veterinarian, the state veterinarian, your extension specialist, poison control, the NJ Department of Agriculture, etc. creates one location with all the contact information you need. Adding contact information for anyone who can assist in an emergency should be on this list and it is prudent to have at least one emergency contact who is not in your immediate area in case you need assistance from outside a disaster zone.
Another important aspect of disaster preparedness is to make sure all your animals are uniquely identifiable (number, name, etc.). Be sure to use an easily readable and weather-resistant type of identification system to prevent the identification from being lost over time.
Examples of some of the best identification systems for disasters are methods that can identify the animal from a distance (for example, ear tags, branding, leg tags, etc.). Other forms of identification like ear tattoos, ear notches, and the like are difficult to see from a distance in cases where animals may have escaped from enclosures due to the disaster. Remember to keep all paperwork (health papers, veterinary records, etc.) in one localized area that can be easily moved and carried away in the event of an emergency.
When considering your farm, remember to clear away pieces of debris and secure large items which includes farm machinery, large water and feed containers, and trailers. Preventing material from turning into flying objects will protect your animals, your buildings, and people as well. Be sure to remove any large branches, unstable trees, or any other vegetation that is laying around the property or about to topple over as these will be the quickest to become a flying hazard.
One of the hardest considerations when thinking about disaster preparedness is making the decision of how animals will be evacuated or if evacuation is the best plan for your situation. If you have a smaller number of animals, if you have access to many trailers, and/or if there is enough time to move your animals, you can focus on finding an evacuation location for your animals. Ensure the evacuation location has feed, water, bedding, etc. for your animals for a minimum of seven to 10 days.
Some locations producers have used are county or state fairgrounds, show facilities, university grounds, and friend and family farms. If evacuation is part of your plan, be sure to have an evacuation kit with all the medications, records, supplies, etc. that are necessary for your animals. It is also prudent to trailer-train your animals prior to evacuation being necessary as animals that will not load onto trailers will hinder the evacuation process.
In many cases, evacuation is not going to be possible, and this is where farmers need to consider their specific farm and animals to determine their best option. Animals may be brought inside but it is important to be mindful of the location of the barn and its strength. In many cases, animals inside a shelter are in more danger as the shelter cannot withstand the weather.
In these situations, it is best to bring animals to a pasture that is fenced without bared wiring and is on high ground to decrease chances of flooding. Look around the pasture of choice to make sure there are limited debris and other materials that could become flying hazards in high winds. Once the disaster event has concluded, it is important to make sure feed and clean water is accessible to the animals while remembering that water can become contaminated in severe weather disasters and electricity will likely be lost so automatic watering systems will fail.
The last bit of advice I want to make sure I address is barn fires. As many of you have heard, when a barn is on fire it is important to remove the animals quickly (only if entry is safe) and to make sure the animals are moved to a secured location because the animals will likely run back into the burning barn.
When animals are stressed, they want to move to their “safe space” which is often the barn that is on fire. In the stressful moment, the animals will run straight back into a burning building. Utilizing a blindfold with scared animals (particularly horses) can be useful in getting them away from this perceived “safe space”.
In this short article, I have attempted to scrape the surface of disaster preparedness and as you have probably noted a disaster preparedness plan is extremely farm specific – there is no one-size-fits-all plan. The New Jersey Department of Agriculture (https://www.nj.gov/agriculture/animalemergency/disaster-assistance/) has great resources related to creating an Emergency Preparedness plan and you can contact them directly if you wish to speak to someone for assistance in creating a plan for your farm.
You can even check out the County Animal Response Teams (CART), which is a group of volunteers and other entities, such as government agencies and the private sector, with resources and personnel to respond to animal issues in disasters (https://www.nj.gov/agriculture/animalemergency/cart/).
It is not a fun exercise to prepare for a natural disaster or other emergency, but when there is a plan in place it will make the emergency more manageable.