Chopped hay: Helicopters drop feed following flood
It’s a friendly act to drop in and check on your neighbor.
It’s even kinder to drop in – literally, out of the sky – and bring hay to their stranded cattle following a massive natural disaster.
As the flood waters started rising on March 14, 2019, the infrastructure of Nebraska – not just the dams, roads and bridges, but the heart of its sustaining industry, agriculture – began to wash away. Trapped in the aftermath were pockets of cattle that overnight became inaccessible.
On the evening of the 14th the governor had activated the Nebraska National Guard, which performed more than 100 human rescues by air and five via ground transportation that night. As the waters remained unrelenting over the next few days, the Nebraska Department of Agriculture requested the governor to mobilize the Guard for feeding isolated livestock as well. Requests were put out to other states for additional assistance and the Minnesota National Guard answered the call, sending two aircraft and crews to assist the Cornhusker state in what became officially called Operation Prairie Hay Drop.
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Video footage from the Nebraska National Guard of the hay drop could be mistaken for the opening sounds of M.A.S.H., with the steady drum of a chopper in the background and aerial dispatch jargon filtering through the radio. But interspersed among the dialog is the sound of “Whoop! There goes one!” and a hay bale falls from the cargo hold of a CH-47 Chinook.
This wasn’t the first time the National Guard has delivered hay following a natural disaster, but this was the first time this unit had. Starting March 20 and for the next several weeks they delivered a total of 94 round hay bales – 12 by ground and 82 by air, and 80 square hay bales – all by ground.
“We had never tried or practiced this before,” says Major William McGreer, a full-time guardsman who piloted one of the choppers and who also grew up on a farm and ranch near Big Springs, Neb. As hay bale pounds can vary widely, McGreer said they first had to get accurate weights on their load to estimate capacity. “We ended up running out of space before we maxed out on our weight capacity,” says McGreer. Each load ended up carrying four bales. The chopper crew made every effort to land the plane and unload the bales on the ground. In some cases that wasn’t possible, resulting in the widely viewed videos of “hay bombs” delivered to appreciative cattle.
Most of the hay was donated from out-of-state and hauled in by volunteers. The team initially worked out of a hay dispatch area at the state fairgrounds in Grand Island and then out of a second collection area near the livestock sale barn in Columbus. Like most of the accounts of volunteer responses activated following the flood, the identification and location of cattle needing fed was mostly “crowdsourced,” as Major Scott Ingalsbe, public affairs specialist for the Nebraska National Guard says.
“The Department of Ag put a cell phone number on their site and on Facebook for the guy on the ground in Columbus dispatching hay, and we started getting addresses where people had livestock in need,” Ingalsbe says. Most of the hay drops ended up being near Columbus, Neb., and the surrounding area.
McGreer said dropping hay bales through the air from a helicopter was interesting for sure, but the biggest reward for him was being able to help out the farmers and ranchers. “Most of us are native Nebraskans, and many of us like myself grew up on a farm or a ranch. There was just really a lot of fulfillment in being able to help out our own.”
The operation spanned approximately two and a half weeks from the first hay drop to the last, although the missions weren’t constant. A couple locations required repeat drops as the owners were still unable to access their cattle due to destroyed infrastructure.
Brent Wolf, a private chopper pilot and owner of Hexagon Helicopters in Elkhorn, Neb., came to the aid of some cattle, and their owners also, as a volunteer responder. “In the days after the flood hit, someone posted on Facebook that there was a couple who had been stranded in their house near Genoa, Neb., for about four days and their cattle also were without feed.
“I thought, that’s not too far away – I can help them out,” says Wolf.
Wolf operates a Robinson R44 chopper, which he uses to run his agronomy business doing crop spraying and aerial cover crop seeding. Wolf just happened to have the perfect tool – a large, handmade stainless steel treble hook he had constructed to try out his new tig welder. “It was just hanging on my garage wall – I hadn’t used it yet, but it looked cool.”
Someone donated small square bales, neighbors and friends helped ratchet strap the bales together, then Wolf hooked on with a long line and the treble hook from the air.
“We hauled 110 bales over to the island – it probably took an hour or so. There were 30 cows over there, standing at the fence wanting some of that hay we were bringing,” says Wolf.
Wolf said the number of people and the ways the communities were pitching in to help each other was incredible. With transportation means under water, many people couldn’t get to work even if they wanted to. Despite the tragedies, Wolf said there was a great sense of camaraderie during the ordeal.
“It was something neat to do – definitely out of the ordinary. When you get the chance to use your equipment for a good purpose, it’s a lot of fun,” says Wolf.
McGreer noted one thing that will always stand out in his mind is the appreciation from the farm and ranch families they were helping. “At one stop we had family and neighbors show up with food … we basically had a tailgate picnic beside the Chinook helicopter as we were loading bales.”
Because when an emergency strikes in rural America, everyone shows up with food. For the people, for the cattle and for the people feeding the cattle.
Nebraska National Guard rescue missions by the numbers:
- 102 total support missions completed (both air and ground) in the entirety of the flood response, not just the hay drops
- 94 round hay bales transported, 12 by ground and 82 by air
- 80 square hay bales transported, all by ground
- 107 people rescued by air, 66 of which were by vertical hoist
- 5 people rescued by personnel on the ground
- 13 animals rescued
- 90 pallets of bottled water delivered by ground
- 11 pallets of medical supplies delivered by ground
- 1 Bobcat T770 was transported by aircraft (sling load)
- 1,000 sandbags delivered by ground
- 1,100 vertical-type sandbags delivered by air
- 449 total National Guard Soldiers and Airmen served on this state active duty mission, not all at once but over several weeks
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