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Cattle industry declining rapidly

STACEY PLAISANCE / L’Observateur / October 2, 1998

The cattle industry in the River Parishes is taking a steady dive with the expansion of other industry, residential development and abandonment of the cattle business by upcoming generations.

According to St. James Parish County Agent Jimmy Garrett, there are nocommercial cattle farms remaining in St. James Parish. Cattle farms inSt. Charles and St. John parishes are declining, and many farmers sayindustry is to blame. St. John Parish County Agent Larry Brock saidindustry-owned lands have been occupied by cattle operations for years, but as industry expands the area available for cattle production is being reduced.

“It won’t change too dramatically year to year, but over time that will happen,” Brock said. “But it’s not just industry. Other problems are makingcattle production difficult.” Lack of labor, decrease in value of the cattle, lack of area auctions and lack of veterinarians who work with large animals are among the many drawbacks to cattle farming, Brock explained.

President of the St. Charles Parish Cattlemen’s Association Otto Vicknairhas been in the cattle industry since age 9. He said many parish farmers,himself included, are being forced to sell out of the business.

“This is a rough situation,” Vicknair said. “You just can’t make a living oncattle anymore. Everything is so high, you don’t even break even.”Vicknair said the cost of feed and feeder cattle has a tremendous effect on the calf value. When feed and other necessary items increase in price,the value of the calf suffers, he said.

“It’s hard to say how much longer I can stay in the business,” Vicknair said. He added the Cattlemen’s Association is about to fold, as it only hasapproximately five members remaining in the organization.

Gerald Wood was one of the most recent cattle farmers in St. JamesParish to sell out of the cattle industry, and two years ago he made the decision to make the transition from cattle to sugarcane production.

“It’s more economical,” Wood said. “Sugarcane is just more profitable.”Wood’s family had been in the cattle business since World War II, and he said that with the advent of industry in the River Parishes the value of land has changed and the socialistic ways of making a living have shifted.

“Cattle just doesn’t fit the picture anymore,” Wood said. “Youngergenerations are getting plant jobs and going to college. They just don’twant to work on a farm.”Industry has introduced new ways of earning a living, and Wood said people are abandoning the cattle industry to pursue other careers. Whilesome parish farmers still have very small cattle operations, Wood said they also have other employment for the primary source of income.

“They don’t live solely on cattle anymore,” he said.

Brock said even the part-time cattle farmers are selling out because the cattle production isn’t profitable, and it takes time, energy and finances away from other enterprises.

Maintaining cattle or other forms of agriculture is different from having a traditional 9 to 5 job, Wood said.

“With cattle, it’s a job you have to stick with every day,” he explained.

“It’s not like a regular job where you go in at 9 and get off at 5 to do other things you like to do. And you don’t have weekends off to go to footballgames. Cattle, chickens or anything of that nature have to be cared for dayto day, even on weekends.”Economics was the determining factor in Wood’s decision to work with sugarcane production as opposed to cattle. He said success in agricultureis determined by many uncontrollable factors, primarily the weather, but sugarcane is simply more marketable.

“The weather affects cattle like it does sugarcane,” Wood said. ” There’snot a difference there. There’s a parallel effect even though one is a plantand one is an animal.”With this summer’s drought, for example, Wood said he estimates about a 5 percent reduction in yields of sugarcane production due to the weeks of damaging dry heat the crops endured this summer. However, he said therecent rain will affect area cattle production, especially if flood continues to be a burden in the River Parishes.

“With wet weather comes a tremendous amount of mosquitoes and other insects which really impacts the cattles’ health this time of year,” he said. “But abnormally high winds blow the cane over and make sugarcaneharvesting difficult. There’s weather factors from both ends.”It is stated in the 1997 Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources that, “Every year Louisiana farmers confront circumstances that test their best skills and threaten their very financial existence.

Agriculture production is not easy, but neither is it optional.”