A Gisborne farmer stripped down to his underwear and jumped into the flooded Waipaoa River to help rescue 50 distressed cows from drowning.

Severe weather battered the district, as well as Bay of Plenty and Hawke's Bay yesterday, causing widespread flooding and closing roads and schools.

Gordon McPhail spotted the cows - though only seeing the tops of their nostrils above water - and filmed them before hopping in and trying to help.

A local helicopter also assisted. McPhail managed to save one of the cows that got stuck up against a tree, while another didn't make it. The helicopter directed the rest of the cows to safety.

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McPhail's wife, Bex, told the Herald Gordon couldn't believe what he saw.

"He said it was quite sad and quite hard watching them thinking these cattle are going to drown."

She said he turned up home in the middle of the day yesterday in his underwear, freezing.

"I was like where have you been?" she laughed.

"And he was like, oh my goodness I've just been swimming with cattle."

The couple's farm which is a few kilometres away from where the cows were rescued, is also under water.

Looking out from her toddler Harry's bedroom window, Bex McPhail said it looked like a lake surrounded them.

"I stood on the end of the deck and looked right around and there was not one blade of grass I could see," she said.

"I couldn't see the pool, the steps, the handle into the pool.. my pot plants around the pool that sit a good 30cm above the pool. Just nothing. There's just nowhere for the water to go."

She said their chicken coop floated away and they sadly lost a few of their chooks.