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B.C. farms take in rescued cows as milk supply chain cut off

Thousands of animals are dead and hundreds of farms are flooded after a storm sent raging water toward Sumas Prairie.

A dairy farmer in Agassiz is housing 40 extra cows after flooding forced the evacuation of farmers in the Sumas Prairie area of Abbotsford.

Holger Schwichtenberg’s farm, which is home to 400 dairy cows, tells Glacier Media he's happy to lend a helping hand. 

"We are a resilient bunch... I’m getting a bit emotional here,” he says. “We are here to help wherever possible. It’s gut-wrenching to watch but we’ll do our best.”

On Tuesday night, 184 people had to be rescued from Sumas Prairie by water or air. Many of them left behind cattle and their livelihoods.

The rescue mission followed a warning from the City of Abbotsford, which said a key pumping station would flood and fail. 

Pressure on the pumping station is coming from the Nooksack River, which flows into Canada from the U.S. side of the border and continues to dump water into the Sumas Prairie. Roughly 300 volunteers — including retired firefighters, veterans and contractors — worked through Tuesday night to erect a make-shift dam to protect the pumping station.

Meanwhile, thousands of animals have died, according to Agriculture Minister Lana Popham.

"There are some difficult issues that we are dealing with animal welfare,” she said. “Their barns are flooded and you can see the animals that are deceased and it’s heartbreaking." 

Mayor of Abbotsford Henry Braun said the exact number of animal casualties is unknown. 

"I think I saw a few cows that seemed to be floating in the water yesterday from the helicopter," he said Wednesday morning. "We have no numbers. There’s a lot of birds out there too, poultry.”

There is a requirement for disposing of a perished animal, according to the BC Cattlemen’s Association.

"In this case, that's even going to be compromised because we can’t do burial in the Lower Mainland, so some of these will have to be taken out,” says general manager Kevin Boon, adding the deceased cows will need to be located and removed quickly.

"It will be another one of those things that they will have to look at... a safe way to remove them and remove them quickly so they don’t start to deteriorate."

Water started breaching dikes around 3 p.m. on Tuesday. Farmers jumped into action using motorboats to try and rescue their cows in five-foot deep water. 

"When they came out, they were shaking, they were cold... they don’t know what’s going on,” Braun said. 

The rescued cows that are staying with Schwichtenberg are adjusting well. 

"They’re in a very very similar environment and it’s actually gone quite seamless. Some of them are a bit noisy. They don’t like change,” he says.

The BC Milk Marketing Board is advising producers in areas like Abbotsford, Chilliwack and the B.C. Interior to dispose of their milk by dumping it into manure piles. 

"Myself included, there’s no way of the milk trucks getting to our farm... milk is a perishable product so the only thing you can do is dispose of it in an environmentally friendly way and keep going,” says Schwichtenberg.

He's calling it a "supply chain catastrophe." 

“All of a sudden, 70 to 80 percent of the milk in the B.C. cannot be picked up. That’s just unheard of.” 

Meanwhile, eighty per cent of the egg production in B.C. comes from Abbotsford and Chilliwack, concentrated in two areas that are heavily flooded: Sumas Prairie and the Yarrow district of Chilliwack. 

B.C. declared a provincial state of emergency Wednesday, in response to the floods and mudslides. That could mean measures to prohibit non-essential travel or hoarding.

"The last few days have been incredibly difficult for British Columbians as we have experienced yet another natural disaster. Heavy rains, strong winds, flooding have devastated entire communities of our province,” says Premier John Horgan. 

Many of the animals that were rescued need urgent care, says Popham.

"They need attention, so with my colleagues, we are developing routes so veterinarians can access farms and get to the animals as soon as possible,” she says. "There will have to be euthanizations that happen.”

Bringing in food for animals is also difficult at this time. The minister notes the province has asked for assistance from afar. 

"We’ve made contact with feed mills, we’ve made contact with our colleagues across the nation to try and access food.” 

As farmers continue to help each other out, the province has promised to make sure disaster relief funds are available.

With a file from Stefan Labbé and Nelson Bennett