A red barn with a windmill and other older barns, and a corn field on a Wisconsin farm.

Emergency Preparedness is Risky Business

Dr. Julie SmithAnimal Health, Livestock diseases, Planning

When I talked about emergency preparedness with folks involved in agriculture in 2011, I was referencing the Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion, the toxic sludge flood in Hungary, and the Fukushima nuclear plant accident in Japan as example of disasters that were unanticipated. In 2019, I would have referenced the crashes of the Boeing 737-Max, the collapse of the Brumadinho dam in Brazil, and the failure of the Vega rocket launch. In the lingo of Nasim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable,” these could be black swans: events outside of normal expectations, with outsized consequences, and yet predictable in hindsight. Or maybe they are better described as gray rhinos according to Michele Wucker, author of “The Gray Rhino: How to Recognize and Act on the Obvious Dangers We Ignore.”

Humans by nature don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking about things that are unlikely to happen and would be really bad if they did happen. It hasn’t happened yet, we say, and continue on our merry (but unprepared) way. This can leave us vulnerable to being surprised by events that we could have been prepared to deal with ahead of time.

“The dangers of life are infinite, and among them is safety.” — Goethe

There are two main approaches to assessing one’s risks. These are labeled probabilistic and possibilistic. The probabilistic approach is to identify what issues you are most likely to experience in your geographic location. Are you at risk of hail, wind, snow, ice, drought, fire, or earthquake? Estimate the probability of these threats, then address the most likely ones. These are commonly insurable risks. Alternatively, the possibilistic approach is to think about the worst thing that could happen and ways to reduce the consequences. What if we lost an important member of the farm or ranch team to death, disability, divorce, or deportation? Would we stay in business? How? This kind of worst-case thinking can build resilience and is the only way to address uninsurable risks.

One worst-case scenario that I have spent a lot of time thinking about is a high-consequence animal disease emergency, like foot-and-mouth disease, African swine fever, or highly pathogenic avian influenza. This type of livestock or poultry disaster could have significant collateral damage not only for animal and human health but also for businesses whether or not they are directly involved in agriculture. For instance, disease control activities and movement restrictions could impact regional tourism. We are seeing similar consequences to the economy as a result of COVID-19, a human disease emergency. While a pandemic is always possible and could be considered likely to happen—even if we don’t know when—we don’t seem to be ready for it.

One approach that I think is helpful in preparing for disasters that affect agricultural production is to think of potential consequences that could affect you and your business. It is the consequences of a disaster that you have to deal with, not the cause.

  • What if the power was out for two hours, six hours, 12 hours, or 24 or more hours?
  • What if a major feed or water source was contaminated?
  • What if the milk truck, cattle truck, or feed truck couldn’t get to your farm today or tomorrow or the next day?
  • What if the barn burned down? What if your house burned down? What if your tractor caught fire?
  • What if a large number of animals suddenly became sick or died?

Identify Potential Problems to Limit Damage

Taking defensive action as the “storm” moves in can mitigate the consequences, but responding quickly requires a certain level of sensitivity to things out of the ordinary along with knowing how to report those concerns. For animal health concerns, a helpful acronym is BUDDIES:

  • B-blisters or vesicles around the mouth, nose, hooves, or teats
  • U-unusual ticks or maggots (fly larvae)
  • D-unusual numbers or presentations of dead or down animals
  • D-diarrhea in an unusual number of mature animals
  • I-illness or abortion in an unusual number of animals
  • E-eating abnormally, whether it’s loss of appetite, drooling, or difficulty swallowing
  • S-staggering or other neurological signs such as spasms or seizures

Seeing any of these signs should prompt you to call a veterinarian immediately.

The following actions can enhance your resilience no matter what the crisis is:

  1. Post emergency contact information for employees and their families, owners, and emergency responders where they can be easily accessed even if working on part of the farm away from the main facility.
  2. Have fields named and marked so that emergency responders can easily locate them if someone there is in need of urgent care.
  3. Have a clear picture of your business goals in both the short and long term to help you appropriately respond to major events that affect the business operation.
  4. Know that it is okay to talk to someone you trust if you are feeling unusually irritable or depressed or unable to process your thoughts or feelings in the most productive way. The worst thing you can do for your family and co-workers is to not seek professional counseling or treatment if you need it. I am among those who believe that even “normal” people can benefit from counseling. So don’t deprive yourself if you’re not feeling like your normal self!

Commit Time to Plan Ahead

Don’t let the urgency of every day tasks leave you unprepared for tomorrow’s crisis. Commit time to work on building a preparedness plan, and then work through some what-if scenarios with your team. The Healthy Farms Healthy Agriculture website has useful resources for building a herd and flock biosecurity plan and a crisis communication plan. Other planning resources include:

  • All Hazards Preparedness for Rural Communities – resources to help rural communities prepare for natural, biological, or technological disasters – www.prep4agthreats.org
  • Extension Disaster Education Network (EDEN) Animal Agrosecurity and Emergency Management – a free, self-guided course, but registration is required. The course covers everything from natural disasters, animal emergency management, response and recovery, and more – campus.extension.org/enrol/index.php?id=2342
  • Farm Security – another free, self-guided EDEN course that requires registration – campus.extension.org/course/view.php?id=54


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About the Author

Dr. Julie Smith

Dr. Julie Smith is a research professor at the University of Vermont. Julie received her B.S. in biological sciences, D.V.M., and Ph.D. in animal nutrition at Cornell University. Since 2002, she has applied her veterinary background to programs in the areas of herd health, calf and heifer management, and agricultural emergency management. She has taught courses in animal welfare, calf biology and management, and ABCs of biosecurity to undergraduates, mostly in the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences. As a veterinarian and spouse of a dairy farmer, Julie is well aware of the animal health and well-being concerns of dairy animals. Julie has conducted trainings for Extension educators, livestock producers, and community members on the risks posed by a range of animal diseases, whether they already exist in the United States, exist outside of the United States, or pose a risk to both animal and human health. In all cases, she emphasizes the importance of awareness and prevention. In addition, she has led a number of projects on biosecurity and emergency disease preparedness.