Blizzard Effects Lingering

Plains Still Recovering From Blizzard

While more than 30,000 cattle were lost to a dangerous blizzard that hit the High Plains Dec. 27 and 28, some say it could have been worse and they credit all the early warnings given by meteorologists that helped producers brace for the storm. These are some of the weather warnings that were posted by the National Weather Service Dec. 26. (Graphics courtesy of National Weather Service)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Although a total won't be known for some time, the High Plains of western Texas and eastern New Mexico are still recovering from a blizzard that resulted in the loss of at least 35,000 cattle.

The blizzard swept through a large land mass in these areas on Dec. 27 and into Dec. 28, dumping 2 to 3 feet of snow in a short time and strong gusts of 50 to 60 miles per hour leaving snow drifts up to 10 feet high in some areas.

Curtis Preston, County Extension Agent from Bailey County, Texas, in northwestern Texas, said although news reports have stated the loss as 30,000 to 35,000 head of cattle, the loss will likely be more.

Although the area has had quite a bit of melting in the last couple days, Preston explained there are east/west county dirt roads with snow drifts 5 feet deep that have yet to be opened. Road crews are still working to open such roads.

An especially difficult task is finding some of the beef cattle, many of which graze on wheat pasture through the winter. Such fields are partitioned off with just electric fences; many cattle broke through them when they tried to huddle together to keep warm.

"It's going to take some time," he said. "We're still finding dead animals. People are still out finding cattle as far as 30 miles away."

DAIRIES HIT HARD

Most of the losses, however, came from the region's many dairies. Preston estimated the losses for the area may total as high as 10%.

The majority of the losses were grown milking cows, most of which are kept outside in drylots, Preston said. The problems arise when cows try to huddle together to keep warm.

"They pile up together, the snow covers them up, so most of the losses come from asphyxiation, not from hypothermia," he said.

Losses of baby calves are less, probably around 5%, he said. Preston explained that baby calves are kept in huts which all face south. "The snow piled up on the huts and sealed them over, protecting them from the wind," he said, a vital defense against high wind chills caused by low temperatures and high winds.

Aside from the devastating death losses, Preston said there will likely be more damage found as producers examine their cattle more thoroughly. This includes frostbitten teats that would stop milk flow.

"We're going to be fighting for the next 45 to 60 days with these issues from the storm," Preston said. He added there will likely be some culling in coming weeks of cattle with such injuries.

Preston said the High Plains provides about 36% of Texas' milk supply. While the losses will certainly affect milk supplies in that region, it is unlikely to affect national markets.

Most producers have insurance on the animals, although Preston said he was unsure if insurance policies cover a full replacement cost.

Another big part of losses from the storm will be in production. He explained that with a nine-month gestation period, it will take time to replenish dairy herds in the High Plains area.

For instance, if a dairy lost 300 "springers" (heifer calves close to birth), they probably would be unable to immediately buy 300 cows in that age group ready to calf.

"It will take time to replace that production," Preston said. "It's going to be a slow road back."

He added that there is a nation supply available, especially with the technology of sexed semen that guarantees a female calf available. However, it will still take time for the build-back process for dairies.

EARLY WARNINGS HELP MINIMIZE LOSSES

Mark Brown, county extension agent in Lubbock County, just southeast of Bailey County, said the Lubbock area was much more fortunate. The county lost only about 110 head of livestock from a large feedlot, stocker cattle operations and one 2,000-head dairy.

The area received about 11 inches of snow in 24 hours, with 60-mile-per-hour wind gusts and snow drifts of 4 to 5 feet. Still, Brown said producers were lucky with just minimal losses.

He credited much of the reason for the minimal losses to area meteorologists, whom he considered as doing a great job in predicting the blizzard.

"Producers had time to brace for the storm," Brown said. "They had time to get front-end loaders ready, get blades on equipment and fill feed bins."

Cheryl Anderson can be reached at cheryl.anderson@dtn.com

(ES/SK)