Safely Evacuating Livestock in a Flood

Mar 01, 2023

New Zealand is still grappling with the effects of the recent flooding in Auckland over anniversary weekend, followed swiftly by the destruction of Cyclone Gabrielle across the North Island. The enormous scale of damage caused by two major weather events back to back is still being established, with roads still blocked and large areas of property damaged.

The initial flooding was caused by rainfall over 300 mm in some areas, over a short 48-hour period, pushing drainage across the region beyond its limits. This caused floodwater to back up into streets, across highways, and into packed public transport. More than 400 calls to Fire and Emergency NZ were made on the night of the flood for assistance, and emergency services were also stretched to capacity.

The unprecedented flash-flooding also affected pets and livestock, forcing a lot of farmers to fall back on their animal evacuation measures, as fences were destroyed and land swallowed up in South Auckland.

The effects of flooding can be devastating for farmers, who depend on the land to house and sustain their animals. These recent disasters have highlighted the importance of having a plan in place in order to reduce the immediate consequences of flooding, and establish a path back to normalcy.

Below, we’re going to cover why floods are so damaging for animals, which steps are most important when protecting your livestock, and how to manage a crisis when it happens.

How do floods affect animals?

Rapidly rising water can quickly cut off access to your livestock, making it difficult to check on them or move them if needed. Floodwater can also cut them off from safer ground or from food and water. Beyond that, there’s a number of specific issues that floods can give rise to.

Early calving

The stress of flooding can cause animals to give birth early. You may need to pay closer attention than usual, because livestock under a lot of stress may start to calve without showing the typical signs that they’re almost ready. It’s best to try to keep this in mind when you’re planning how you’re going to access your livestock and check up on them during a flood.

Parasites & diseases

Wet and muddy fields unfortunately help parasites flourish, making your livestock more susceptible to them, and flooding may also help parasites survive into the next grazing season.

The stress of flooding also increases the risk of livestock developing metabolic diseases such as milk fever or ketosis.


Infections of the udder and teat canal can develop due to higher levels of environmental bacteria, which can be carried by floodwater or grow in damp bedding. Keeping bedding dry or replacing damp bedding is key to managing this during flooding.


Another major threat to livestock that are cold and wet is hypothermia. Contact with flood water for long periods of time can drop the body temperature of animals quickly, leading to dangerous complications, and the bad weather can make it difficult to help them recover. Smaller, older, or weaker animals may need covers to help them keep warm.

How can we protect livestock from floods?

Preparing for natural disasters can’t be overstated as the best way to manage a crisis when it occurs, and knowing how your land is going to be affected can substantially mitigate the damage.

If you know certain fields are prone to flooding it pays to move livestock as early as you can before a storm hits, provided you’ve had enough warning. Try to move animals to places with better drainage or higher ground, so they can stay out of the mud as much as possible.

You’ll also want to note the locations of any rivers and streams on your land, and keep animals away from these, as it’s safest to assume they will rise.

Work as a team

When you’re putting together a plan of action, be sure to write a list of people you can call for help, or those who you’ll need to warn of danger, including staff or neighbours. Your vet is also a great source of information for planning ahead—they should be able to tell you what you should prioritise when developing a crisis plan in order to keep your animals safe.

There are some helplines you may want to have on hand too; the Ministry for Primary Industries currently recommends farmers contact the Rural Support Trust on 0800 RURAL HELP or 0800 787 254.

You could also join a local community volunteer group, or start one if there’s none nearby. Community groups are invaluable when it comes to responding to a crisis, helping ensure everyone makes it through okay.

Practical steps

A flooding plan should also involve some common-sense steps to ensure you minimise loss of livestock, injuries, or property damage. Double-checking that your animal's identification is both visible and not at risk of coming off is a good start.

If you have poultry in areas that might flood, it’s a good idea to create high perches for them if they don’t already have any. If possible, try to place some food and clean water up high for them too.

Relocatable shelters are very useful here—they can be moved to higher ground or repositioned from one field to another if needed. You can read more about relocatable shelters on many of our product pages, such as the Hunter Calf Shelter page.

Before a storm hits you may also want to consider removing barbed wire from your fences, or even re-fencing some areas to allow your livestock to move freely to higher ground.

Prepping for a water shortage is also wise. Floodwater is full of contaminants and so a lot of water supplies or wells may become unviable for you after a disaster. Having emergency water or another water source on hand is helpful to see you through until flood water subsides, and your normal water sources are safe again. If you’ve been told that you can’t drink the water in your immediate area, then it won’t be safe for your animals to drink either.

Regular checks

Ideally, you should already do regular safety checks on all your infrastructure. During these checks you’ll want to note things that could be dangerous in heavy wind, and before a storm or cyclone, try to fill troughs or other large containers with water if you can to make them heavier and less likely to flip.

Keeping your land free of old hardfill or other buried trash is also important. During a flood, anything you’ve left on your land could be spread across a much wider area, and any hazardous substances could end up leaching into the soil, or into food or water supplies.

Preparing a flood kit

Lots of farmers prepare disaster kits that are ready to go should the worst happen. You may want a kit for floods specifically, or just include flood supplies into an existing kit that covers all disasters.

In any case, you’ll want to make sure you have written plans for what to do that you can circulate quickly and easily to your staff if needed. A good kit will also include:

  • Extra halters or leads, as these can break in a crisis, and spares are important.
  • Blankets.
  • Extra feed and water. It’s best to try to have enough to last a week at minimum, but more will be expensive, as you’ll want to rotate perishable supplies every six months or so.
  • Any medication that your livestock may need.
  • Spare fencing supplies.
  • Spare medical supplies.
  • Protective gear such as gloves, etc., to keep you safe from contaminated flood water, or protect you if you need to come into contact with animals that have been standing in flood water.

What to do when flooding occurs

The most important thing to do is remain calm, as panicking makes it that much more difficult to manage the situation.

If you haven’t been able to relocate any of your shelters ahead of time, and can’t easily transport your livestock somewhere safe due to limited transport options or rising waters, you may need to keep them where they are.

Ideally, you’ll be able to move them to the safest place you can within reason, but it’s important to remember that you are in danger too, and you shouldn’t risk your own life to move your livestock. If you can move them, try to ensure they’ve got access to clean water and food. You may also be able to move them into a neighbour’s property temporarily.

Once your animals are in the safest place you can find for them, you’ll likely need to decide if you’re staying on your land too—you may want to evacuate. If it’s safe enough for you to stay, checking in on your livestock to make sure they’re safe and contained is ideal, but again it’s important to recognise the danger you may be in and act accordingly.

Checking your livestock

If it is safe enough for you to check in on your animals, there’s a few things to be wary of. The first is injury—in a flood, stressed animals are more prone to hurt themselves trying to escape, but it can be hard to tell when a stressed animal is hurt. Checking for injuries should be done carefully as they’re often hard to notice, and even small wounds could be serious, especially if exposed to contaminated floodwater.

If you have animals that are calving, you should try to supplement post-calving mothers with calcium if you can. You can also mix ground lime flour into feed to help support them. You can find out more about supporting colostrum cows in a flood here.

MPI has another great resource that you can read through, which covers both evacuating and containing livestock, and dealing with injuries, stress, feed and water, and reporting lost animals.

Once flood water has receded

After the worst is over, there will be a lot to do to get back on your feet, but taking things one step at a time will help. It pays to talk to your neighbours or community groups about what needs to be done over the coming years to recover.

Checking bales for water damage is a good place to start—any that have holes will likely be water damaged, and some of them may have been picked up and carried off by the rising water.

Checking your soil again is another thing to keep in mind—floodwater can dramatically alter the pH of soil, and areas of your land may now be fairly different. Weeds tend to spring up after flooding too, and this may continue for a few years after a natural disaster.

Planning ahead makes all the difference

The best possible way to look after your livestock in a crisis is to be prepared for it. Part of that means being adaptable, and many of our rural kitset buildings are just that. Being able to relocate your animal shelters to safer land goes a long way toward keeping them both safe and healthy in a natural disaster. Feel free to reach out to us today if you’d like to talk about our relocatable shelters and which will work best for your land.

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