Winter storm Goliath affects cattle producers in Texas, New Mexico

Heather Maude
for Tri-State Livestock News
Nearly 300,000 cattle were in the path of winter storm Goliath in Texas and New Mexico. Farmers, ranchers and officials are still tallying up the losses. Courtesy photo.

“I never would have believed eight inches of snow could do this to my livelihood. But, there are just under 300 dead cows in a row right outside my office, lying next to a 14-foot snow drift,” said Dutch Road Dairy owner Nancy Beckerink.

Winter storm Goliath dumped between eight and 22 inches of snow across eastern New Mexico and northwest Texas starting the night of Dec. 26 and continuing through Dec. 27, along with winds described as “tornadic” by some. Predicted a week in advance, livestock producers in a part of the U.S. that rarely receives significant snow accumulation spent their Christmas holiday preparing for the worst. But, the best preparations are not always enough when facing a storm of giant proportions.

The dairy industry

“We have about 143,000 adult dairy cows in the area affected by Goliath, including half of Texas’s top 10 dairy producing counties,” said Kirsten Voinis, the Texas Association of Dairymen spokesperson. “We currently believe about 10 percent, or 15,000 head, of adult cows were affected or lost to the storm, although that number could rise as we are still waiting for firm reports from our dairy co-ops as producers dig through drifts and inspect their herds.”

“Of the losses incurred in feedyards, younger, lighter weight and new arrival cattle were most heavily affected.” Jayce Winters, Texas Cattle Feeders Association communications manager

Dutch Road Dairy milks around 2,200 cows in an open lot setup with windbreaks and structures designed to provide shade. In the days before the storm, Beckerink’s husband Matt and several employees set up hay bales and pieces of equipment for additional wind protection.

“We moved feed around and were as prepared as we could be. We even stocked the fridge with pizza for our milkers, knowing they might be stuck at the dairy for a couple days,” she said.

Her husband worked right through the first part of the blizzard, stopping to sleep for a few hours Saturday night.

“He got up at 2 a.m. Sunday morning to head back the dairy, which is about eight miles from our home. He arrived at 10:30 a.m. the following morning – he spent all those hours stuck just a mile down the road, and after that he couldn’t even find the road.

“Meanwhile, our milkers had to quit milking about 3 a.m. Sunday because they couldn’t get to the cows, or get the cows to move. They were all standing in the corners with their heads down. The milkers spent the morning hunkered down in the utility room with a heater. Matt eventually got a tractor down there and then got into a pay loader. Our herd manager and calf feeder had also gotten stuck, and it took him most of the morning to get to them. He spent part of it sitting in our driveway, lost because he couldn’t see anything,” said Beckerink.

The wind stopped Monday morning, Dec. 28, and the Beckerinks, their employees, friends and family all converged on the dairy to get the milking parlor back up and running, animals cared for, and to begin plowing the formidable 14-foot drifts.

“The calf hutches were completely buried, and we went along and made air holes for each calf before we started digging them out. I think that’s what saved them – only one didn’t make it. Four of our 2,000 replacement heifers also died, and about 290 of our cows. We’re still missing a few cows, but we think they’re just mixed up with others. Several walked over fences on drifts and we’re continually finding more of them,” she said.

As digging out efforts continue, the reality of surviving the storm is beginning to hit home as the dairy faces reduced milk production, frostbite and pay day.

“Before the storm we were making 80 pounds of milk per cow on average. The first day back we made nine pounds. Today, we are up to almost 60 pounds. Every day our system prints a low milk list for us to potentially cull, and there were 400 cows on it this morning,” said Beckerink.

She said approximately 25 percent of the cows are also experiencing frostbite, and in several cases the dairy won’t know whether the cow needs culled until her next calf and milking cycle.

“We are trying to wrap our heads around how we are going to survive the next six months, income-wise. We have a great set of employees who are all an emotional mess because they love animals, and we’re trying to figure out how to pay them. Our milk check pays the bills, and it isn’t going to be much come the 15th of the month,” she said.

Voinis said the milk production issues, and milk lost as a result of the storm, is a common problem being faced across the region.

“There were several hundred trucks scheduled to be picked up the days of the storm that were not because of road closures, and that milk had to be dumped. Then, with so many cows going one to two days without milking, their production will continue to be lower for the duration of their current milking cycle. While we do not foresee an impact for consumers in terms of supply of milk products or price, it will be a very different story for the individual farmer,” said Voinis.

To keep spirits up, the Beckerinks are focusing on the outpouring of support they have received from friends, family, employees, and even strangers via their Facebook page, as well as their surviving animals.

“We were so upset when our cows died, and we decided that if we were that upset and loved those cows that much, we were definitely in the right business. If it hurts this bad, then we should obviously be in the business of caring for cows. We’re dairy farmers, six generations deep on my side, and this is what we know and who we are. Plus we have a lot of people depending on us – there are too many families beyond our own involved in this business. We can’t quit,” Beckerink said.

The beef industry

Between 125,000 and 150,000 beef cattle were in the areas of Texas and New Mexico hit by Goliath. An estimated 20,000 stocker cattle being wintered on wheat pasture drifted over fences and went astray. Between 6,000 and 8,000 of those stocker cattle are assumed dead, with another estimated 4,000 head lost in area feedyards.

“The storm was worst between Amarillo and Lubbock, then west into New Mexico. Of the losses incurred in feedyards, younger, lighter weight and new arrival cattle were most heavily affected,” said Jayce Winters, Texas Cattle Feeders Association communications manager.

She added that a massive response within the ag industry prevented the disaster from being much worse, both during and after the storm.

“We are continually hearing of feedyard owners, employees and staff spending the weekend on the job, caring for animals, ensuring they had feed and water. The commitment, resilience and hardworking spirit we know and expect of agriculturalists was fully enacted,” she said.

Locating the thousands of drifting stocker cattle was a top priority for Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) in the days following the storm according to TSCRA director of public affairs Laramie Adams.

“Most of these cattle were grazing on wheat pastures with single wire electric fences, which were drifted over in countless instances. Our immediate need was to figure out where those tens of thousands of cattle had gone after wandering over fences, and who did the livestock belong to once they were found,” he said.

TSCRA has a law enforcement department to assist in times of crisis, and they went to work locating, then identifying cattle based on brands, ear tags and any other form of identification.

“I do not know exactly how far the cattle traveled on average, but I know it was far enough many weren’t found easily. Many are back where they belong now, but a week later we are still searching for, locating, and returning some cattle,” Adams said.

Landon Weatherly of Friona, Texas, was among those whose family had stocker cattle on wheat pasture. Of the 1,500-2,000 head his in-laws own, only about 80 head went astray.

“We started preparing Christmas Eve, putting out bales for windbreaks in about 10 different pastures, checking water, and just trying to get everything as ready as possible. Then when the storm hit over the weekend, we tried a couple different times to get out to the cattle, but couldn’t. It’s disconcerting when you can’t get an eye on that many cattle, and we were out very early Monday checking on everything,” he said.

Of the family’s missing cattle were all found within a three to five mile radius of where they belonged.

“Ironically enough, about 40 head went a couple miles south, and ended up right across the road from where the guy that cowboys for my father-in-law lives. That worked out well as he just penned them Monday morning,” said Weatherly.

However, not all producers were as fortunate, and Weatherly has heard stories of some cattle being found 50-60 miles from home. Those stories, and his desire to help fellow producers and showcase all the ag community was doing to care for their livestock lead him to start a Facebook page called, “Cattle Lost and Found.”

“Within a day the page had 1,000 followers, and people starting posting and sharing stuff. The next day another 1,000 people started following, and more people posted cattle they had found or that were missing. People were just helping people, and through sharing posts and communicating, they started finding cattle, too,” said Weatherly.

In addition to helping people within the ag community, Weatherly saw the page as an opportunity to promote the ag industry to those less familiar with its practices.

“When things like this happen, there will be images come out of it of cattle that were hit by a train, or who died because they couldn’t find water, food or shelter. I want to make sure people can also see what good people we are, and what everyone did to save all those animals. I want them to see what actually happened to put that glass of milk and hamburger on their table. That sometimes it’s hard, but that everyone fought, and there are good people out here doing all they can, even on the hardest days,” he said.

Both industry experts and individuals talked only of continuing on in the future. Everyone has plans to rebuild and survive what has been a catastrophic weather event on top of what Winters described as a tough year of low milk prices and volatile calf prices.

“The true resilience of the ag producer, and his love of his work, is really felt in times like this. These people don’t back down, they step up to meet whatever their operation’s needs are. This is not a defeat for them by any means,” she said.