Pardon my language.
Earlier this week a massive storm marched across half of North America. I’m not really sure when the powers that be decided to start naming winter storms but they called this one “Winter Storm Goliath” and to be honest, it seems those in charge of naming storms came up with a pretty fitting name this time around.
While here in Wisconsin the storm caused us headaches at our farm by dumping snow, then sleet and then a fine layer of ice, we dealt with everything and moved on. Goliath was barely a blip on our radar.
However, the farmers and ranchers in New Mexico, West Texas and the Oklahoma Panhandle ended up with far more than a blip on their radar. Goliath pummeled the area and now early estimates are saying that up to 20,000 cows and calves are dead. Just like Winter Storm Atlas, this story isn’t making the news and most of the people in our country will never know the story behind what will one day be known as the Blizzard of 2015.
There already seems to be a lot of people out there blaming the farmers for losing animals in this storm. The area hardest hit is home to many large dairy farms and feed lots, what many would define as “factory farms”. Some are placing blame for the death of these cows on the size of the farm. Others have said that if these farmers cared more or worked harder they would have saved them. I’ve seen comments that these cows should have been in barns and if they were they would still be alive. The worst part is that many of these comments have come from people in agriculture. Instead of supporting their peers, they are taking pot shots at people facing incredibly heartbreaking challenges because they farms differently than they do.
I think that’s bullshit. I absolutely hate seeing people in our own industry tearing each other down.
So let’s look at the facts of this storm and some of the stories and photos direct from the people who survived it.
Steve Hanson owns Desert Sun Dairy in Clovis, New Mexico with his family where they milk 2,800 cows. He and his 3 sons, who work with him on their farm and a handful of employees rode out the storm on the farm. While some parts of New Mexico get snow, in Clovis a 6″ snow fall is considered a pretty heavy snow. This storm dumped far more than 6″ of snow, and reports are that it snowed upwards of 18″ but you could hardly get an accurate reading because 85mph winds were moving it fast into massive drifts.
An F1 tornado has wind speeds of 73-112mph. This blizzard had winds at tornadic speeds.
The wind dropped the temps from the 20s to -16 in Clovis.
One of Steve’s sons lives 1/2 mile from the dairy, after doing everything he could do, he headed home to rest at 1:30am. However his truck was snowed in and the roads were impassible so he called home and had his wife pull their Jeep around the house and flash the lights so he could walk the 1/2 mile in the blizzard without getting lost.
Steve’s family’s cows went without feed for 36 hours because the snow had made it impossible to mix and deliver the feed to them.
The roads around Steve’s farm were completely blocked and the milk trucks couldn’t get off the dairy. This one family alone had to dump over 250,000lbs (approximately 30,000 gallons) of milk because they simply couldn’t go anywhere with it.
Andrew Schaap and his family own North Point Dairy, also in Clovis, N.M. Andrew shared how his family got through the storm, “Both of my brothers and my dad’s trucks got stuck so I was the only one with wheels and got tasked with driving back and forth between town shuttling employees. The whole day of the blizzard we couldn’t get to the dairy because of the intensity of the storm. I felt sick to my stomach all day not being able to get to the dairy and do anything. But even if we were there it was impossible to see. My brother in law was more prepared than we were and had sleeping bags and food so the guys could sleep at the dairy and be there when it hit but they weren’t able to milk all day either. There was absolutely nothing we could do with 80 mph gusts in whiteout conditions. Moving the cows was an impossible task and each hour the alleys filled with more and more snow. 48 hours later and we’re still clearing snow out of the feed lanes. We had 100 calves in hutches and half of them were buried alive.”
Nancy Beckerink and her family have a dairy farm in Muleshoe, Texas. Before the storm came they used large bales of bedding and even their milk tankers to help block the wind. The day before the storm they bedded their calves with extra bedding and prepared as best as they could for their turn to dance with Goliath.
Despite the calves being completely engulfed in snow, Nancy reports that they only lost one baby calf in hutches, none of their slightly older calves in the group hutches and only 3 older heifers. Unfortunately the storm caused the death of 200 of their milking cows. (Learn more about calf hutches HERE)
Tara Vander Dussen and her family own Rajen Dairy, also in Clovis. They milk 10,000 cows on three farms. When the storm hit Tara was stuck in the house with her baby, unable to help her family. Thankfully they kept power however, her husband’s grandmother was not so lucky. When her husband tried to go and get his grandmother to bring her to their home where she would be warm, his truck got stuck. He got out the tractor and tried to get to her in it and the tractor got stuck. He was unable to reach her as her house grew colder and colder. Thankfully she was able to stay warm until her family could reach her after the storm.
Tara posted on her facebook about the storm and got a strong enough response that she decided to start her own blog, you can follow along HERE.
Traci van der Ploeg and her family own Mid Frisian Dairy also in Clovis. At one point during the storm someone was so desperate to free their vehicle from the snow that they stole one of the dairy’s tractors, getting it stuck and damaging the tractor.
These are just four stories from the countless people that were affected by this storm. Every person I talked to lost animals. Every person I talked to had to dump their milk. Every person I talked to repeated that they did everything they could but it just wasn’t enough to protect all of their animals.
So those are the stories, now let’s look at the facts.
Why were the cows outside and not in barns?
Despite what many animal rights activists would have you believe, dairy cows don’t spend their lives locked away in barns. In the areas of the country that don’t often have inclement weather, many cows live outdoors, on dirt, in open air lots.
Instead of barns where it can be a struggle to keep cows cool in the higher temps, the cows live out in the open where strong breezes and sun shades keep them comfortable, clean and content.
It would be impractical to expect farmers to build barns to hold all of their animals just in case a 100 year blizzard like Goliath, came around. It would be like expecting every home in America to be built to withstand earthquakes, wild fires, floods, snow load and tornadoes even though some areas are extremely unlikely to have those natural disasters happen there.
Our cows in Wisconsin live in buildings but if we had 80+ mph winds and this kind of snow I can guarantee that cows here would be hurt or killed when barns collapsed or roofs were torn off.
As farmers, we do our best but Mother Nature is the boss.
If these cows were on small farms, they would still be alive.
This comment really ticked me off. Mother Nature doesn’t give a crap what size your farm is. If the cows on these farms had been divided up on 100 small farms in the same area it would just mean that there would be dead cows on more farms.
We milk 100 cows which is slightly below the average herd size in Wisconsin. We are a pretty small farm. Even with the paltry in comparison shot that Goliath gave us, we had a lot more work to do in a day to care for our cows. I simply can’t imagine how hard it would be for our family alone to care for our cows during a storm like this, not to mention digging out after it.
Not to mention, this area isn’t all large farms. There are many smaller herds and they lost animals too!
These farms are so big they will bounce right back, why should I care about them?
While the farms may be ale to recover from the massive financial loss of having to dump thousands of gallons of milk, the aftershocks are yet to come.
More cows are going to die. Cows that go without feed and who are stressed get sick. While the farmers are going to do what they can to keep their girls healthy, the unavoidable fact is that some cows will not be able to recover.
The loss of milk doesn’t stop once the milk trucks can get to the farms. As a cow goes through her lactation she will have a peak where she produces the most milk and then she her body will start to slow production before she is stopped being milked in preparation for her to have her next calf. The cows who were at peak production will probably not get back to that level of milk per day after this. The cows that were slowing themselves down towards the end of their lactation may have been triggered to stop production by not being milked and they will have dramatic drops in their daily milk. A herd who averaged 80lbs of milk per cow, per day could easily drop to 60lbs after something like this. It will take time for the cows to recover.
Then there are the humans to worry about.
Can you imagine watching your life’s work being crushed under the weight of the snow? Can you imagine seeing the animals you raised and cared for dead in their pens?
Can you put yourself in the shoes of these emotionally and physically exhausted people?
This is not something someone just recovers from overnight.
My wish for those of you reading this is to understand that these people did everything that they could do. They are not at fault for Mother Nature’s fury. Please keep these men and women in your thoughts and prayers as they struggle to dig out physically and emotionally after Goliath.