Ranchers and dairy farmers in the Texas Panhandle and across eastern New Mexico continue to count their losses from tragic winter storm Goliath that caused the deaths of thousands of cows over the opening days of the New Year.
With estimated cattle loses ranging from 5,000 to a high of 50,000-plus, the exact number is still not known as riders on horseback continue to search the open range for animal survivors. Some producers are turning to Facebook and other social media outlets asking for help in identifying strays.
"The biggest challenge is yet to come." said Texas Animal Health Commission (TAHC) Region 1 Director David Finch. "Animal production losses will put a strain on all facets of the industry, but we are doing everything we can to make sure the Texas livestock industry will overcome this."
In Texas, the TAHC Horseback Emergency Response Team has been conducting searches and identifying lost cattle while coordinating their efforts with local county officials and the Texas Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA) Special Ranger unit.
Robert Hagevoort, New Mexico State University (NMSU) associate professor and Extension dairy specialist, says determining the exact number of cows lost is difficult. There are about 150 dairies in eastern New Mexico with an average herd size of about 2,300 cows, and dairy farmers have been using heavy equipment to dig cows out of snow drifts up to 20 feet high on some farms.
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This week workers, who for days were largely stranded at dairies because of poor road conditions, used tractors and backhoes to dig into snow drifts in search of cows. A few were discovered still alive but many are not expected to survive and thousands more have perished.
At a dairy near Clovis, New Mexico, owner Andle van der Ploeg says snow drifts were so high they covered a travel trailer and had drifted high enough to allow cows to simply walk out of a pen over the top of a fence. He describes the snowstorm as the worst he's seen.
Hagevoort says final herd losses are yet to be determined, but if they end up as high as 5 percent of herd size as some have estimated, that could mean nearly 20,000 dairy cows may have perished in the storm.
Darren Turley, executive director of the Texas Association of Dairymen, says in addition to thousands of cows that were lost in Texas, there will be a significant loss in milk production as well.
Turley says during the storm, weather conditions and road closures kept dairy employees, who normally milk the animals twice a day, and tanker trucks, which transport the milk from dairy to processor, from reaching farms. Not only were hundreds of loads of milk ready for processing wasted, but, on some farms cows went almost two days without being milked, and that will result in cows producing less milk in the immediate future.
But as of Friday, industry officials in Texas reported they had ramped up to 80 to 90 percent of milk production levels at many dairies.
HARD HIT AREA
Hardest hit in Texas were ranchers and dairy farmers from Lubbock west and north as far as Muleshoe and Friona. Officials estimate about 35 percent of the state's dairy cows, or nearly 143,000, are located within this area. With an estimated loss of 5 percent of the herd, Turley says as many as 7,500 dairy cows could be lost when all is said and done.
"The immediate challenge is how to handle these sudden, massive losses of animals," said Turley. "The ordinary methods for disposal cannot handle the volume of deaths we are seeing from this storm. The Texas Association of Dairymen is working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other agencies to determine how the animals can be disposed of both quickly and safely."
Texas Agriculture Department officials are currently working with Governor Greg Abbott and state and federal agencies to determine whether financial assistance is available for affected dairy farmers.
In Texas, industry groups including the Texas Dairy Association, Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association (TSCRA), Independent Cattlemen Association (ICA), Texas Pork Producers Association (TPPA), Texas Poultry Federation and the Texas Farm Bureau have all been involved with coordinating response plans, as well as the involvement of multiple state agencies.
While winter storm Goliath was devastating to dairy operations across the Southwest, ranchers suffered heavy losses as well. As many as 27,000 head of cattle have been estimated in Texas alone.
Friona rancher Landon Weatherly says he is still looking for stray cattle. Weatherly created the Facebook group "Cattle Lost and Found," which he says is designed to help cattlemen find and bring home their cattle by identifying them by ear tags and brands. The Facebook page has nearly 4,500 followers as of this writing.
The site (https://www.facebook.com/cattlelostandfound/) has postings from ranchers and dairy farmers across a large area indicating the number and identification of lost cows as well as information about response and even winter storm preparation information in the event a similar winter storm visits the area again this year, which some say is likely.
Goliath recorded blowing winds of up to 90 mph that created snow drifts up to 20 feet high across a wide area and dropped well over a foot of snow in areas hit the hardest. Meteorologists at the National Oceanic and Aeronautics Administration report that Goliath and similar systems are not unusual during powerful El Niño years. According to NOAA, the 2015-16 El Niño event currently underway will likely end up as one of the three strongest El Niños since 1950.
In November, the secretary-general of the World Meteorological Center warned that "this naturally occurring El Niño event and human induced climate change may interact and modify each other in ways we have never before experienced."
WSI, a division of The Weather Company, issued their January through March 2016 outlook update last week and forecast temperatures and precipitation have the fingerprints of the current and extremely strong El Niño, the strongest in 18 years.
According to the latest prediction models, El Niño is expected to continue to bring above-average snow and rainfall and colder temperatures to the American Southwest through the early spring season.