TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN
Dairy farmer Fred Neil stands in a dairy barn on his farm northeast of Hartney on Sunday. Neil is still struggling with the aftermath of the devastating flood of 2011 along the Souris River.
When the water finally receded from the 2011 record flood across the province, it left a wake of destruction in its path.
Now more than a year after the Souris and Assiniboine River swelled to record proportions, Fred Neil continues to feel the effects.
The 69-year-old Neil, who owns a dairy farm northeast of Hartney near the Souris River, was forced to evacuate his farm during the flood. Part of that process also included evacuating 250 dairy cows to ensure if the water ever did breach the levee that the cows weren’t rendered defenseless and left to drown.
"It’s the biggest evacuation of (dairy) livestock ever seen in Manitoba," Neil said.
Over five days, Neil worked to evacuate and find homes for his livestock. Because no one farm could take so many cattle, Neil was forced to load the cows and distribute them across dairy productions across the province.
For nine weeks, his cows were milked and cared for at five separate farms scattered across Manitoba. When the flood water finally receded and Niel was able to bring his cows back home he knew there would be some issues.
"We knew that there would be some problems when they came and we accepted that," Neil said.
But the consequences have been even worse than he could have imagined.
Since the cows have been back, Neil said he’s watched his mortality rate almost quadruple in the barn. While Neil expected some "shipping fever" a common side-effect associated with cattle, what he found was far worse — a mycoplasm that is decimated his herd.
"It is attacking the joints of the cattle’s legs," Neil said. "Our mortality rate was about 10 per cent before (the evacuation) and now it’s about 40 plus."
Prior to the evacuation, Neil said he got close to 30 kilograms of production per cow per day, but since they have returned, that number has plummeted to about 21 kilograms.
The cows, which are very social animals, depend on consistency to optimize productivity and Neil said the stress placed on the herd by the evacuation and separation has played a role in the decreased production.
"If you alter routine, you can expect trouble because it’s bound to upset them," Neil said.
He also thought he would be covered by insurance for some of the more than $1 million in expenses he’s accrued in the process. While he received 75 per cent of the costs associated with building a 1.2 mile long dike to protect the property from Disaster Financial Assistance, he hasn’t received any compensation for how the evacuation has altered his operation.
"We did what we thought was right at the time and now we are being punished and held to ransom for it," Neil said. "We’re productive members of society and we’re being penalized. We don’t want to be in this position, but it is being forced on us."
Making matters worse is the fact the claim doesn’t really fall under any federal or provincial assistance program.
"We’re being punished for doing the right thing," Neil said. "Had we let the cows drown — and it is cruel and wrong to say it and we’d never do it — we’d have been better off."
Because Neil’s case is unique and has the potential to set a precedent, trying to get a claim and any type of assistance in a timely fashion has been challenging. It has also meant that the farmer, who built dairy barns 18 inches above any previous flood levels in 1993 and 2007, costing nearly $3 million, has had to sell off quota through the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba exchange.
"We’re going further into the hole, just to keep going," Neil said. "We’ve had to sell assets, just to pay the bills because of all of the problems and the high mortality rate among the cows since they came back."
Neil has sold nine units of quota because he couldn’t reach previous production levels and couldn’t afford to continue to hold onto the contract.
A unit of quota is worth approximately $30,000, representing roughly one kilogram of production to one dairy cow.
"We sold them to pay the bills," Neil said. "It’s been tough on us emotionally and it’s been stressful," Neil said. "You start to wait and look for when the other boot is going to drop."
He also believes the damage caused to his business will force him to delay retirement and now he isn’t sure what kind of legacy the farm will leave his family.
"Cows don’t give milk, someone takes it from them and we’re in that barn at 4:30 in the morning and not back until 9:30 at night, 365 days a year," Neil said.
"We’re trying to build something for our future, for our future generations. How can we pass this on to the children when we don’t know what the hell’s going on?"
Last Tuesday, Neil sat down for a face-to-face meeting with NDP Premier Greg Selinger at the request of Arthur-Virden MLA Larry Maguire.
"I don’t expect to get everything I lost —over a million dollars — but I do expect the Premier to come to the table with a reasonable offer," Neil said.
But he’s worried that the hard work he’s invested in the past, will be used against him in the process.
"If I was a nonproductive member of society I think they would come to the table, but because we’ve got guts, go, and determination, I think that we’re going to be hung out to dry and left to our own devices," Neil said.
For his part, Maguire said the government has been receptive and sympathetic toward Neil’s case, but he also cautioned that the government needs to step up and step up soon to help the farmer.
"The government has always said that they will bring people back to inventory or infrastructure levels and standards prior to the flood," Maguire said.
"Well that’s all Fred is asking for is to get back to square one.
"It’s a one-off situation and unless the province wants to watch this farmer go broke, they better find a solution."
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition December 3, 2012