Building fences in the bayou ’til the cows come home: Volunteers help rebuild Texas ranches

SALEM, Ohio — Chip, a Texas cattleman, bragged to Jesse Dotterer and the handful of others visiting his Anahuac, Texas, ranch.

Years of selective breeding had paid off in the herd he managed with his wife, Jean, and her twin sister, Janet. The cattle were resistant to bayou mosquitoes, suited for the area’s grasses, and had developed the sense to keep away from wayward alligators and snakes. The family’s cattle, he thought, were among the best around.

But now, as he talked to his new friends during their December volunteer mission to his hometown, he was absolutely, positively sure they were the best, Dotterer remembers him saying: “Not only can they do all that, they can swim, too.”

They proved it in September 2008, when Hurricane Ike slammed the east Texas coastline, decimating homes and ranches lining Trinity Bay due east of Houston.

The saltwater surge was more than 20 feet deep along the coastline at Galveston and along the bay; some 50 miles inland, the water flooded pastures and small towns under 12 feet of water.

Those cattle, indeed, had to swim for their lives.

* * *

Nationally, the Alpha Zeta fraternity organizes at least one service project per year, according to Dotterer, an Ohio State and University of Illinois graduate who sits on the fraternity’s national board.

Dotterer, a Mansfield-area native, and fraternity members from across the country have volunteered the past several years in the South, where they put their hands to work cleaning up after Katrina, Rita and now Ike.

“The storm really affected these ranchers and cattlemen,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine recovering.”

In the county seat and little farming community of Anahuac, population 2,210 at last count, you’ll find a feed mill, a country store, and ranchers whose crushed spirits don’t stop them from their vows to rebuild their operations.

When Ike blew in off the coast, they watched helplessly as fences washed away, the posts that anchored them eaten up and rotted by the saltwater. Any fenceline that managed to stay upright was nothing more than a sieve, catching refrigerators and debris from homes that used to be in the suburbs.

Equipment and entire herds of livestock floated away. Half or more of each herd was killed.

The grasses that fed the cattle died, too.

Their biggest concern, Dotterer explained, is the fence.

“Without the fence, there’s no way to get production back in order. They’re keeping the cattle, but without the fences to keep them in …”

* * *

Jean and Janet had spent some 20 years fencing their ranch, building a mile or two of barbed or woven wire boundaries per year until the job was done.

They finished the job in the spring of 2008, right before the mosquitos emerged from the bayou and drove the ranchers from their fields.

And then Ike washed away those 40 miles of fencelines.

“They spent their entire lives building their dream, and in one day it was all destroyed,” Dotterer said.

Last month, he and about 18 Alpha Zetas from as far away as New Jersey and California joined volunteers from the Fellowship of Christian Farmers International to rebuild the fences.

Five days later, the sisters had a parcel — just a single square mile — fenced in. They celebrated.

Finally, three months after the storm had changed their lives, they could bring their cattle home.

* * *

“You can see how these people could get really discouraged,” Dotterer said.

Yet when the college students and farmer-volunteers stood before them, their hands ready to help, the ranchers’ happiness and gratefulness overflowed.

“Most just can’t understand why college kids would give up a week of their Christmas break to help,” Dotterer said.

“But they want to tell you their story,” he reflected.

There are the stories of how things used to be before the water came, stories of how things have been difficult since the water receded, and now, thanks to the volunteers, stories of farmers helping strangers get back on their feet.

Dotterer wasn’t the only Ohioan to lend a hand in Texas.

Allan Morrow, of Covington, Ohio, volunteered through the Christian farmers group, much the same as he did last spring to help clean up near Lafayette, Tenn., after tornados damaged farms there.

“People are so appreciative,” Morrow said, “It’s humbling.”

“When you get there and see how huge the devastation is, it is stunning. Then you think about the job ahead and what it must be like in their shoes and you realize a family cannot recover from this alone.”

Dennis Schlagel, executive director of the Illinois-based Fellowship of Christian Farmers International, has also visited Chambers County and the counties surrounding it, first to survey the damage, and then to help fix it.

“Chances are, if you live on a farm long enough, you will go through a disaster,” he said.

However, in this case, the farmers and ranchers whose lives were forever changed by the hurricane seem to be forgotten, he said. The mainstream media and relief groups instead concentrated on the urban areas.

“FCFI is carrying on the tradition of ‘love thy neighbor as yourself.’ Other farmers can empathize with what they’re going through, and that’s powerful medicine,” Schlagel explained.

Fencelines in that part of the country cost about $7,500 a mile to replace commercially, Schlagel said. Through the volunteer program, men and women donate the manpower, bringing the ranchers’ out-of-pocket costs down significantly.

“In today’s ag, the camaraderie just isn’t what it used to be, thanks to competition for land, land rent, everything. But once that guy gets help, he wants to be a part of helping someone else. That ripples and doesn’t stop,” Schlagel said.

* * *

One of the moments of the Anahuac trip that will be forever burned into Jesse Dotterer’s memory came the day he arrived.

Working alongside his friends, new and old, he nailed up salvaged fence wires. In the grass around his feet, not far from a drainage ditch, lay dozens of turtles.

He eventually found out the creatures had managed to live through the storm surge but had died, unable to find any live grasses they needed to eat to survive.

The Texas ranchers’ cattle could have met the same fate.

Thanks to new fences, new ideas and new friendships, those cattle will live.

“There’s a real resilience of people in agriculture,” Dotterer said. “If [a storm] hit them again next year, those ranchers wouldn’t give up. That’s always impressive.”

About the Author

Former staff reporter Andrea Zippay wrote for Farm and Dairy from 2001 to 2009. More Stories by Andrea Zippay

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