Animal physiologist Richard Browning stood at the edge of the water, shocked. On Saturday night, May 1st, forecasters predicted the Cumberland River, running along the edge of linkurl:Browning's research farm;http://faculty.tnstate.edu/rbrowning/ at Tennessee State University in Nashville, would crest at only 35 feet (around 10 meters) on Sunday evening -- high, but not high enough to damage the farm. But when he and his team arrived Sunday morning, the river had risen to 38 feet. Half the farm
Animal physiologist Richard Browning stood at the edge of the water, shocked. On Saturday night, May 1st, forecasters predicted the Cumberland River, running along the edge of linkurl:Browning's research farm;http://faculty.tnstate.edu/rbrowning/ at Tennessee State University in Nashville, would crest at only 35 feet (around 10 meters) on Sunday evening -- high, but not high enough to damage the farm. But when he and his team arrived Sunday morning, the river had risen to 38 feet. Half the farm was underwater. Goats milled about, knee-high in water. Browning and his team began to rush around, leading the animals to higher ground. Little did they know, the water was still rising, threatening the only comprehensive breeding lab for goats used as meat in the country.
Across the field, Browning spied two guardian dog puppies, only six weeks old, trapped on a hay bale. He began walking toward them, but by the time he was halfway there, the water had risen to his chest. Suddenly, it flooded over his head. Browning, fully clothed and with his boots still on, began to swim against the current toward the bale. Scrambling, he pulled himself onto the hay with the puppies, then collapsed. He was trapped. And all around him, his lab was underwater.
Since 2002, Browning's lab has been on the forefront of breed assessment of goats used for meat, a rapidly growing industry in the United States. In a linkurl:seven-year project;http://www.veterinaria.uady.mx/ojs/index.php/TSA/article/view/37 assessing the fitness and performance of three breeds of meat goats, the team made the surprising finding that South African Boer goats, the most popular breed in the US, are also the worst performers. Specifically, they have major health issues and reproduce less prolifically than Kiko goats from New Zealand and Spanish goats, two other breeds in the American meat goat market. "It was the first and most complete data that had been published to date" on goat breed comparison, says linkurl:Will Getz,;http://www.fvsu.edu/about/external-affairs/cooperative-extension/animal-science a professor and extension specialist in animal science at Fort Valley State University in Georgia.
Following their success, the team decided to crossbreed the purebred lines to assess the fitness of F1 generations. They added a fourth breed of goats, called Myotonic or "fainting" goats, to the research, and began breeding in earnest last year. But, with the torrential downpours last month that caused approximately $1 billion in damage to the region, it was all suddenly at risk.
Browning doesn't remember how long he was stranded on the hay bale, exhausted and unable to raise his head. The water was at eight feet and rising. But rescue was on the way. The president of Tennessee State University, linkurl:Melvin Johnson,;http://www.tnstate.edu/interior.asp?mid=2446&ptid=1 together with a graduate student, commandeered a paddleboat from campus, then paddled out to Browning, rescuing him and the puppies. Browning was taken to the hospital where he was treated for hypothermia. In his absence, a research assistant continued the animal rescue effort. Unfortunately, not all of the goats were reachable. Altogether, the project lost 134 animals, including 92 does and 29 kids, more than a third of their entire stock.
"It set us back," says Browning. The F1 crossbreeding project, which took the hardest hit, made up the bulk of a graduate student's thesis work. Browning hopes to help him salvage the work. "We'll just have to draw a line of demarcation right through [our research] at the flood, and do some assessment with what we already have in the books," says Browning.
On Monday morning, Browning was back out with his team. The river was still rising, so they went in by paddleboat to move the remaining animals (some for the second time) to the only dry land left on the farm -- a single half-acre. (The goats typically graze on 70 acres.) The river crested Monday afternoon in Nashville at 52 feet, 12 feet above flood stage. In the end, just over 200 goats were saved, including all but one of the 27 senior breeding males, laying the groundwork to re-start the crossbreeding experiments. "It will be necessary to go through an additional five to ten years of work just to get where he was before the flood," says Getz. "It will be a challenge."
"Right now, we're in recovery mode," says Browning. The flood covered the fields in silt, and many remain strewn with trash -- overturned tractors, medication bottles, office supplies, and more. An entire crop season was lost at a second TSU research farm during the flood, says linkurl:Chandra Reddy,;http://agfacs.tnstate.edu/uno/Dean_resume.html dean of the School of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences at TSU. "There were pretty extensive losses," he mourns. The university is working with the state insurance program to recoup some of the losses, but "some things are not replaceable," says Reddy. Between the two sites, the flood affected the research of over 15 scientists, he adds.
But at Browning's research farm, the rebuilding process has begun: Since the flood, a few goats have been born. "The herd is already starting to regenerate," says Browning. "It's an encouraging sign."
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