“This is an animal story and a human story, and the most heartwarming part in this cold winter storm is that while Mother Nature strikes, and is relentless, the human spirit and hard work of people coming together to help each other, prevails.” In this space, I had planned to write Day 12 about random acts of kindness through the holidays. Telling this story seemed most appropriate as the human spirit prevails this week in the aftermath of Winter Storm Goliath’s 48-hour pounding Dec. 26-28 in the heart of the West Texas and eastern New Mexico dairy and beef region, bringing devastating losses…
By Sherry Bunting, Reprinted from Farmshine, January 1, 2016
CLOVIS, N.M. — Last weekend’s record-breaking blizzard in the Southwest wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It was 60 degrees with no winter in sight just a few days before Storm Goliath pounded its way through the southern High Plains. Breaking records as a 100-year storm, the combination of sustained high winds driving fine powdery snow — and the sheer 48-hour duration of the storm — conspired to bring devastating losses to the West Texas and Eastern New Mexico dairy region with early estimates that 5% of the region’s 420,000 dairy cows may have perished and double that percentage in losses of youngstock.
“We heard a monster storm was coming, and we were prepared for a foot or two of snow. That can happen, but no one could envision this type of disaster with high winds coming straight from the North to pile it all up around every structure,” said Dr. Robert Hagevoort of the New Mexico State University dairy extension in a phone interview with Farmshine Wednesday.
The 5% — or 20,000 head — loss figure on milk cows is “a place to start,” he said. “We are trying to be conservative, but it will be hard to know the true count until the region is completely dug-out and losses are tallied. Our first concern is getting the survivors fed and back in their corrals and the milking parlor.”
All of Eastern New Mexico and West Texas south of the Panhandle was hard hit, and the storm center appeared to be directly over the region from Roswell to Clovis to Plainview. While Hagevoort has heard from producers having lost 100 to 200 cows, two producers contacted by Farmshine in Portales and Texico report losses of 40 to 50 head, including the losses of hay barns and untold numbers of young stock.
“We lost some cows, but we have heard of herds losing 5 to 10% of their milking cows,” noted Tio Ford of Clover Knolls Dairy, Texico, New Mexico in an email response Wednesday. “People who had beef cattle on wheat pasture were really hit hard, and we uncovered quite a few deads while trying to clear 10-foot-plus drifts off the roads.” Ford’s family has been rooted in New Mexico for over 100 years. His wife Chyanne’s grandfather left the cold winters of northwestern Pennsylvania for the dryland farming and drylot dairying of eastern New Mexico in the 1950s. Her parents Doug and Irene Handy have Do-Rene Dairy in Clovis.
“The wind came from the North and everything on our dairies in this region faces south. The commodity sheds, parlors, calf hutches – all face south in the winter, so the south side of every structure was snowed in,” said Hagevoort. “The blizzard hit with the snow blowing and everything settling on the south side of every structure, snowing-in the hutches with calves inside and forcing dairies to quit milking because of the 8, 10, 12-foot drifts piling up on the south side entrances to the parlors. They couldn’t see to bring cows in.”
As the alleyways and feed lanes filled with deep drifts of wind-driven packed snow, everything came to a standstill.
The visibility became so bad that for most of those 48 hours “no one could do anything. You couldn’t see two feet beyond the hood of the truck,” he added.
The poor visibility was so dangerous that producers became lost on their own dairies. The one to two feet of snow would not be a problem, if it fell straight down, but the winds created drifts up to 12 feet high and packed so tight that cattle simply walked over corral fences and kept walking, becoming lost and disoriented. Some were buried by the driven snow.
Winter Storm Goliath began Saturday and continued “relentless” through Monday morning with sustained winds over 50 mph and gusts above 82 mph in the first 24 hours. On the second day, sustained winds of 40 mph were recorded with gusts above 65 mph.
“One to two feet of snow, we can handle that if it falls normally like wet snow, but not this fine powdery dust snow driven by high winds,” Hagevoort explained. “We still have four-foot drifts around houses in town that is packed in there heavy and the much higher drifts in the countryside require heavy equipment to dig out.”
A state of emergency was declared for both West Texas and Eastern New Mexico as major roads were closed for two to three days. Even two days after the storm, some country roads were still impenetrable with the kind of snow that blades on trucks can’t move.
“When the winds died down Monday morning and the sun came out, people could see what was going on,” said Hagevoort. “Cattle have walked everywhere, and people are still out finding them. They are digging the snow out of corrals to get surviving cattle back in and fed. There are these massive amounts of snow to move, and dairies have 3 to 4 loaders going 24/7 — digging out calves and moving cows back in and feeding and at some point milking again. The sheer manpower required is massive.”
Milk haulers were also among the stranded, and Matthew Cook, a milk hauler from Kansas confirms that he was one in the line of trucks stranded for three days at Southwest Cheese near Clovis. “The roads were all closed, and the wind and blowing snow was out-of-control, so I pretty much hung out in my truck. Most of us knew it was coming so we had food and drink and plenty of fuel,” he said in an email Wednesday, confirming the plant was open again.
Reports indicate not much milk has been processed early this week and in addition to the long stretch of 36 to 40 hours when dairies were unable to milk, some milk in the region also needed to be dumped as trucks could not get out with it.
Hagevoort observed that folks are starting to get back to something remotely resembling normal by Wednesday and the focus on day-old calves and milk cows was shifting to the older young stock and dry cow pens.
In the early going, the Department of Transportation and other state agencies put a call out for large equipment as they are equipped for the occasional four to six-inch snows of the region.
“The focus was on people rescue missions on Monday. Dairymen were digging out dairies and their roads back to the main road in the hope at some point the main roads would be clear and they could meet somewhere,” said Hagevoort.
Dairymen and feedlot operators used their large loaders to help uncover cars with stranded motorists stuck 20 hours or more under the snow.
“It was a really rough weekend. They said we got between 8 and 12 inches of snow here, but I’m not sure how they came up with those amounts because the wind was gusting up to 82 mph,” Ford noted. His 3000-cow New Mexico dairy sits right on the Texas border. “We were stuck at the dairy with a skeleton crew for 36 hours before we were able to get replacements. Every dairy, feedlot, or farmer with a big tractor or loader had them out trying to clear the roads.”
Hagevoort noted that, “This is an animal story and a human story, and the most heartwarming part in this cold storm is that while Mother Nature strikes and is relentless, the human spirit and hard work of people coming together to help each other, prevails.”
Dairymen are not usually an emotional lot. They focus on the business and the work and the challenges, but the emotion is raw at the loss of these animals and the sheer devastation. Amid the heartbreak of the losses, producers have no time to dwell as they put one foot in front of the other to dig out and tend cattle and keep their employees safe as everyone works together to find the lost, feed and tend to the survivors, and get the dairies operating again.
While the USDA FSA livestock indemnity program exists as part of the last Farm Bill, it is capped, so Hagevoort says it will be difficult if the large number of losses exceeds the financial compensation available through the indemnity programs.
While size doesn’t matter in terms of the impact of Goliath’s relentless strike, larger dairies may be affected by the caps in terms of receiving compensation proportional to their levels of loss. Officials urge dairy producers to document everything to sort out the help that may be available in the future.
“We can look ahead at how to mobilize resources more rapidly in the future, or how to be safer in situations like this, but the truth is… no two storms are ever the same. This one packed an uncommon combination and longtime residents say they’ve never seen anything like it,” said Hagevoort.
With temps in the teens and 20s and night time wind chills down to -18 at night during the height of the storm, there will be sick cattle and frostbite issues to deal with going forward.
Producers also reported not being able to milk cows for 36 to 40 hours, and that will also impact health and production going forward.
“The cattle have seen a lot of stress,” said Hagevoort. “But we will work through it. It’s a tough thing in times like this where the milk price is below where it needs to be.”
But just like in Dallas, where Goliath spawned tornados and floods, the remarkable human spirit prevails.
“People come together,” said Hagevoort. “On our dairies here, the employees stayed working two to three shifts and owners worked untold hours with them and cooked meals and washed clothes to keep them going. The combination of family farms with employees and owners working together to make it through a challenge like this… That’s the real story.”
While the final tally is likely to show young stock losses to be twice that of the estimated 20,000 milk cows lost across the region, Hagevoort noted remarkable stories coming in about calves being found under 6-feet of snow — alive in their hutches.
“This is an incredible story of farmers taking care of the animals they are entrusted with, despite the fury Mother Nature sometimes unexpectedly unleashes,” read a post on Wednesday at the New Mexico State University Dairy Extension’s Facebook page.
On Monday, Tara Vander Dussen of Rajen Dairy with three facilities totaling 10,000 cows in the region wrote a post on her public Facebook page telling consumers and animal activists: “I wish you understood how much we care about our cows. I wish you knew that my husband, brothers, dads, uncles, family and friends got up this morning at 2:00 a.m. to go to the dairy in a blizzard with 65 mph winds, -16°F wind chill, lightning and 6-feet snow drifts. They had to leave their families and children (some families had no power) so our cows could have food and water. They went out to take care of our cows the best that they can. And they did this after working a full day on Christmas Eve and Christmas! They do all of this because they care about the health and safety of every animal on our family farm! I wish you knew.”
Two days and nearly 20,000 shares later, Vander Dussen started a New Mexico Milkmaid blog to communicate further on this topic.
All told, Goliath’s effect stretched across much of the U.S midsection. The massive storm included heavy rain, floods and tornados on the severe side and blizzards with snow and driving winds on the wintry side with ice storms in the middle around the center of Oklahoma.
The rains have put southwest totals ranging 50 to 150% above normal. Cold and muddy conditions are also impacting the beef and dairy operators from the Southern Plains through the Midwest Corn Belt.
“It was a storm I can’t put into words or ever experienced,” said Ben Smith of Arrowhead Dairy, Clovis, N.M.” We have a lot of snow digging out still to do and a lot of cleanup to do as well. We have been milking and feeding again for two days, so that part is good.” When asked what people can do to help, producers say “the prayers are appreciated… and they are helping. -30-
1 Winter has been nonexistent so far in the Northeast where earthworms litter the ground, spring peepers can be heard, and migratory birds are confused about which way to fly. But for producers in the West Texas and eastern New Mexico dairy region, winter came abruptly last weekend with a vengeance never seen there before and bringing a combination of factors that would be difficult for dairy farms even in regions more accustomed and prepared for big snows. Storm Goliath pounded the area with one to two feet of fine powdery snow driven by 50 to 80 mph winds coming straight from the north and piling hard-packed drifts up to 12-feet high against every structure from calf hutches to commodity sheds to milking parlors. Estimates are that 5% of the region’s milk cows have perished — buried by drifting snow and disoriented as they wandered over the tight-packed snow drifts along corral fence lines. Dry lots work very well in this more desert-like region of the country. Manure dries up and cows stay clean. But this uncommon combination from Storm Goliath brought dairies to a standstill for 48 hours in which the visibility was so poor, producers themselves were getting lost on their own dairies. By Wednesday they were still digging out, finding and tending survivors and just beginning to assess their losses. Photo courtesy of Tio Ford, Clover Knolls Dairy, Texico, New Mexico.
2 A line of milk trucks was stranded for three days at Southwest Cheese, Clovis, New Mexico, and throughout the region dairies dumped to days of milk with many unable to milk cows for 36 to 40 hours. Photo courtesy of milk hauler Matthew Cook.
3 In New Mexico and West Texas, the humidity is very low and dry lots are the way dairy cattle are kept. Loaders are needed to dig through the 8 to 12-feet tightly packed drifts that have piled up in corrals, feed lanes and against the south side of every structure from fences to parlors to calf hutches. Photo courtesy of University of New Mexico Extension.
4 Finding and feeding young calves and milk cows was priority one when the storm ended Monday morning. Calves had been buried in hutches under 6-feet of snow pack, but stories are coming in that a surprising number are being found alive. Officials estimate a 10% loss of young stock throughout the eastern New Mexico and West Texas dairy region from Storm Goliath. Photo courtesy of University of New Mexico Extension.
Dairy Carrie also blogged on this with stories from four dairies here