Emergency planning key to averting disasters on farms

A grass fire burned precariously close to the edge of Larson Custom Feeders near Fort Macleod, Alberta., January 4, 2012.

With cattle in the pens and the fire whipped by high winds, there was no time for workers to move the animals.

A firebreak and action by responding fire departments averted disaster, but what can farmers and ranchers do to protect livestock in times of similar crisis?

Brian Andres, emergency program manager with Alberta Agriculture, thinks that is a good question, and one that agencies are examining so they can provide producers with useful guidance.

He is part of the Alberta Farmed Animal Health and Welfare Strategic Network that is developing a checklist it hopes to release this spring.

“We really started thinking about it after flooding in 2010-11,” said Andres.

Last May’s fire that destroyed half of Slave Lake, Alta., and many surrounding acres provided further reinforcement. Southern Alberta grass fires in November and January are more grist for the mill.

“It reinforced that we need to provide more information,” said Andres.

Planning is key to any emergency plan, but relatively few people have one.

Andres points to an Ontario survey that found only 23 percent of people have an emergency plan.

Brian Cornforth, Lethbridge fire chief and president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, suspects the number in the West might be lower.

“Unless they’re like me, not many (have a plan.) But it takes 10 minutes to walk around the yard. Take a look at what you’ve got.”

Andres concurs.

He said the first step is to examine the farm or ranch operation and take note of all hazards. Power lines, railroad tracks, haystacks against a fence or building, fuel tanks and tall grass can all go on the hazard list.

Producers should then figure out a response should an emergency present itself. If it does, added Andres, be sure to implement the plan.

“Do you have an evacuation plan for your family and is it possible to have an evacuation plan for your animals? All of our natural disasters at some point affect animals.”

Fire has been the most common emergency in Cornforth’s area lately. Simple precautions can limit damage, he said. Keeping grass trimmed around buildings and storing feed in more than one place, downwind from the feedlot or farm buildings, are obvious.

A water tank or other water source is also advised.

“With a small pump and a hose, you can do a lot initially before the fire department gets there,” Conforth said.

“When you’re out in the rural area, we could be 15, 20 minutes, 25 minutes in some cases, away.”

Depending on the nature of the emergency, livestock could be put in temporary pens or turned into a larger area with access to food and water.

Andres said livestock identification is important so that they can be returned once the emergency is over. Horses in particular are not always adequately identified, which can create problems later.

Producers also need to consider the impact of electrical loss in the case of fire, flood or storm. Conforth said it could affect barn operations such as automatic waterers.

He said everyone on the farm must be aware of the emergency plan in case the main operator isn’t home.

Livestock issues to consider in an emergency

Stock may be best left at home if pasture has:

• no overhead power lines or poles

• no debris or sources of blowing debris

• no barbed-wire fencing

• at least one acre of open space. Livestock may not be able to avoid blowing debris in smaller spaces

If you are moving livestock in an emergency:

• work within your community to establish safe shelters, such as fairgrounds, other farms, racetracks and exhibition centres

• ensure sufficient feed and medical supplies are available at the destination

• be ready to leave as soon as an evacuation is ordered. It may not be possible to evacuate heavy loads safely in high winds. Roads may be restricted to emergency service vehicles and not open to traffic

• you will need access to trucks, trailers and other vehicles suitable for livestock. You may need a portable loading ramp

• make sure animals have sufficient identification

• minimize contact among animals from different premises

• protect feed and water from contact with wild animals and birds

• handle mortalities to minimize possible spread of contagious diseases

• monitor the health of the animals daily

• have adequate fencing or pens to separate and group animals appropriately

Checklist when evacuating livestock from danger areas:

• keep a list of all animals, including location and records of feeding, vaccinations and tests

• keep a supply of temporary identification of animals, such as plastic neck bands and permanent markers

• assemble handling equipment such as halters, cages, blankets and appropriate tools. Include bolt cutters to quickly free animals in an emergency

• collect water, feed and buckets as well as other tools and supplies for sanitation.

Source: www.getprepared.ca, Agriculture Canada

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