July 11 2024 04:04 PM

When faced with an emergency, a farm team can more readily react if there is a plan and a point person.

IN THE WAKE OF A DISASTER, taking care of the people and animals should be the first priority.

Bad things happen to good people. Likewise, bad things can happen to good farms.

While some disasters can’t be avoided, we can prepare ourselves and our businesses to be better equipped to handle these unfortunate circumstances. At the Dairy Cattle Welfare Council’s annual symposium held in Kansas City, Mo., veterinarians Barb Petersen and Brandon Treichler shared their advice on planning for disasters on the dairy.

These are situations this duo knows all too well. Working with dairies in the Texas Panhandle, their clients have experienced tornadoes, blizzards, excessive winds, large hail, fires, and more.

Petersen and Treichler have both joined other volunteers to help dairies in the aftermath of various crises. They agreed that a critical component of the response efforts that happens after a disaster is having a point person in charge of communications surrounding the situation.

The leader in command

When a disaster or incident occurs, immediate action is required. “Who’s the quarterback? Who’s going to own the communication plan?” asked Petersen of Sunrise Veterinary Service based in Amarillo, Texas.

“Everyone needs to know who the point person is,” she emphasized. “Good communication channels are critical.” This person may help direct emergency crews, organize volunteers, gather supplies, or talk to the media if questions arise, among many other tasks. After a disaster or incident, the first action is to triage the victims. Petersen said steps must be taken to prevent any additional human and animal injuries as much as possible.

They also said there needs to be some level of coordination to manage the people who come to help. Volunteers should sign in to keep a head count of who is on the premise, and people should be working in pairs or teams, not sent into dangerous situations individually.

The point person could be the farm owner, but it could also be a farm manager, a dairy consultant, the herd’s veterinarian, or someone else familiar with the business. In fact, Treichler recommended that the point person be someone other than the owner, as that person will likely have their hands full in the aftermath. He advised assigning this role to someone who can be trusted, and perhaps a person who had some training in communications or emergency response.

For farm owners, Petersen said to “own” their leadership role. This means building a team of trusted people and then delegating tasks to those individuals.

Don’t prepare to fail

The reason natural disasters are such a challenge for farmers is that they are often unpredictable. That being said, people can plan ahead and prepare for the disasters that are more likely to happen in a particular region.

“Nothing is ever going to trump prevention,” said Treichler, who works for Select Milk Producers. “In none of the instances [I have been involved with] did we wish we were less prepared. In all cases, we were happy with what we had planned and happy for what we did in advance.”

The value of planning is certainly clear, but this is an area with room for improvement on many dairies. Why don’t farm teams do more emergency planning?

One reason, Treicher said, is that people assume these bad situations won’t happen to them — but they can and often do happen, he noted. Others may feel like planning is futile, since we can’t plan for everything, but Treicler emphasized that any planning is helpful. Even if a situation does not go according to plan, the act of planning is incredibly beneficial, in Treichler’s opinion.

Sometimes, people just don’t know where to start, and the idea of having to do more paperwork can be daunting. This is where Treichler said veterinarians, dairy consultants, or service providers can play a role in helping create emergency response plans.

Treicher added that a plan doesn’t need to be a fancy document. Even a sheet of paper with important numbers written on it can play a critical role in an emergency.

Petersen agreed that the plan itself doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to work.

“Animal and human welfare, and safety in emergencies, are not line items on a spreadsheet or protocols on a paper in a binder on the shelf. This is real life application,” she said. “Go home and think about your plan. Are you ready? How can you empower others?”

A plan should include phone numbers that might be needed during an emergency. It could also detail a meeting place on the farm so people can be accounted for. Petersen shared that on one farm she works with, their meeting place for all employees is the parlor. Treichler also advised recording the GPS location of the facility, as the mailing address might not lead emergency responders directly to the farm and could waste precious time during a disaster.

Once a plan is created, it should be practiced. Attending emergency training workshops is also valuable. Even though training is never the same as the real situation, Petersen said background knowledge helps tremendously when people are thrown into a real emergency.

Walking through the emergency plan can also help a farm realize what supplies they have and what they might want to keep on hand, because when a crisis happens, “you only have what you have,” Treichler noted. “There is no time to catch up then,” he added. “It is going to be all hands on deck.”

Protect the people

Both veterinarians also touched on biosecurity in light of the highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreak in dairy cattle. “Biosecurity plans have been raised on the radar,” Treichler said. “In the dairy industry, we probably have not placed enough emphasis on this.” He said the goal is not to turn every farm into a research facility, but we can assess the risks and how we will mitigate them so a farm could continue to operate in a disease outbreak.

“We will never be perfectly biosecure, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try,” he said.

He also reminded the audience that farming is a dangerous occupation, and he encouraged dairy farmers to take steps to make the dairy a safer facility. Look for ways to identify problems early and have a plan for keeping people safe from zoonotic diseases.

“If we can’t care for the people, we can’t care for the cattle,” Treichler underscored.

Beyond the physical risks, both Petersen and Treichler talked about the emotions they felt after being involved in some of these emergency situations. They discussed the fatigue and post-traumatic stress that can happen among people who witness such tragedies. “We must care about others,” Peterson noted.

“People are our most valuable resource. Good people and good teams are hard to come by,” Treichler added. “We want everyone to be able to go home at the end of the day . . . that is critically important.”