After losing 66 animals to ‘wall of water,’ farmer starting to get over ‘heartbreak’ of flooding

After losing 66 animals to ‘wall of water,’ farmer starting to get over ‘heartbreak’ of flooding
Carcasses of some of the 40 calves that Rockville farmer-cattleman Richard Panowicz lost in last week’s Middle Loup River flood are collected Friday in a bucket attachment on a tractor. Panowicz is also contending with pastures covered in sand.

ROCKVILLE, Neb. — Maybe it was the rare warm, sunny, calm spring afternoon that lifted Richard Panowicz’s spirits recently or the meadowlark singing from a post on a new section of pasture fence along the east side of the Middle Loup River a few miles north of Rockville.

Or maybe Panowicz and his Sherman County neighbors who graze cattle and grow crops on both sides of the river finally feel some sense of normalcy returning to their lives since a devastating flood in March .

“I’m doing good, excellent,” Panowicz said as he took a break from what has seemed like endless fence building since the March 13 winter cyclone’s rain and high winds combined with ice and still-frozen ground to produce the flood.

“Nobody got hurt. We’re good and healthy,” he said. “It was a heartbreak at the time and then you start getting over it.

“It’s like losing family members.”

He and his wife, Loraine, who have lived 31 years at their farmstead a couple of miles north of the pasture, saw more than 60 head of cattle swept away from roughly 4:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on March 13.

“I went to Loup City and was coming home and saw the wall of water to the north of us, and then it was just ‘boom,’ ” Panowicz said, as large chunks of ice — some 3-feet thick and the size of an extended cab pickup — began to break apart on the frozen river.

“This was the worst I’ve ever seen for destruction. A tornado cuts a narrow swath for a few miles … This came up from north of here and went all the way to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers,” he said.

Neither he nor his neighbors along the river were prepared for the never-seen-before event.

The explosion of water and ice took away 56 of his calves, nine Angus cows and a Charolais bull. “There are some we are not going to find because they got sanded over or washed downstream,” Panowicz said.

In an interview a week after the flood, he said he’d probably sell his remaining cows and get out of the cattle business. Now he plans to continue for a year or two to rebuild his herd.

Panowicz’s biggest concern for the rest of this year is having enough properly fenced grazing land for his remaining cattle. He estimates that 160 to 175 acres of his 460 acres of pasture — state school lease acres are 75 percent of the total — are unusable. That includes 50 to 60 acres of a grassland he owns north of the meadowlark’s fence post that’s buried in sand averaging 2 feet deep.

Panowicz can joke about having enough sand to fill every sandbox and sand volleyball court in the region, but he knows it would be a huge, extremely expensive job to haul it away. It will take many years to re-establish grass and he worries that weeds and brush might take hold in the meantime, possibly affecting adjacent properties.

Although his farmland was undamaged, wet weather has made it impossible to plant corn. “We’re ready to go and then it rains again,” Panowicz said.

On a brighter note, his alfalfa acres are doing well. “There should be a tremendous first cutting,” he said.

His focus has been on getting cows and calves out on pasture. That has been possible only because of help from family members and friends to get 2½-3 miles of new four-row barbed wire fence built to replace the miles and miles of old fence washed away or damaged.

Panowicz, who was helped Thursday by his brother, Raymond of Kearney, and friend Leslie Golka of Grand Island, said still there are approximately 3 miles of new fence to build.

Volunteers also helped make an initial dent in the long-term project to clean flood debris, including downed trees, from meadows and other farm sites. Untangling and piling all the barbed wire carried by the flood has been particularly difficult, Panowicz said.

He received a quarter-mile of fencing supplies donated by the Jones County (Iowa) Cattlemen’s Association and hay products contributed by a Ravenna friend and Ohio farmers.

Panowicz has applied for aid from some U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency programs. He explained that insurance covers fire, wind and theft, but no one has the flood insurance required to cover the cattle losses, cropland and flood-damaged livestock feed.

When asked how his business is different now, he said, “There won’t be 50-some head of calves to sell this fall. We don’t know what we’ll get out of these government programs. But it’s not the same as selling your own product.”

Applying for those programs and accepting donations wasn’t easy. “I hate to stand with my hand out,” Panowicz said, “but I think now we all will have to stand with our hand out a little bit.”

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime flood that came down here. I’ll never see something like it again …,” he said. Panowicz then paused, smiled and added, “I’m too damn old to build this much fence again.”