Blizzard kills dairy cows

Cows rest comfortably at Jason Sheehan’s dairy near Sunnyside, Wash., on Feb. 11. Blizzard conditions Feb. 9 caused the deaths of more than 1,800 dairy cows in the area.

SUNNYSIDE, Wash. — A day-long blizzard killed 1,677 cows at about 10 dairies in the Sunnyside area of Washington state last Saturday.

A snowstorm was accompanied by sustained winds of 30 to 50 mph all day and gusts up to 80 mph, farmers said.

Because of desert climate conditions, many farms in the area are open lot dairies with cows outside or under open-sided shelters. Most of the dairies with losses were on an exposed ridge north of town.

“Cows were huddled in, pressed up against each other in corners of pens and refused to move. Farmers couldn’t get them to move into milking barns. Herd instinct,” said Gerald Baron, executive director of Save Family Farming, a farm advocacy group. “Most cows died from injuries from each other and some from cold exposure. They went down and couldn’t get up.”

About 28 cows that were injured are likely to be euthanized, farmers said.

“Each cow could be worth $2,000, so we’re looking at $3.2 million plus future production loss, but right now the bigger impact is a huge emotional loss to farmers,” said Dan Wood, executive director of Washington State Dairy Federation.

Dairy farmers already are struggling to survive in extremely difficult market conditions, so the storm losses are like a double-whammy, he said.

“Farmers put up hay bales for wind barriers and tried to do what they could. Farmers were out there in zero degrees or less with wind chill, risking their lives to save cattle,” Wood said.

No farmers or workers were reported injured, he said.

“Like all dairy farmers we and our courageous crews worked all night trying to get these cows into better protection, but for so many their instincts took over and we could not budge them. It’s a terrible, tragic loss,” said Jason Sheehan, 44, a Sunnyside dairyman and head of Eastern Washington Family Farmers.

He said his family has never shut down the milking parlor in 40 years but that he had to from 1 to 11 p.m. Saturday because he couldn’t get cows to move and milk trucks could not get in. He had to dump milk. He lost cows but did not want to say how many.

By 11 p.m., the wind died down to 20 to 25 mph, he said, and he was able to get cows moving.

“I grew up in Minnesota and I never saw anything like this back there,” Sheehan said. “My employees were awesome, coming in on days off. It was all hands on deck.

“My wife, four kids, employees are all safe. But we feel horrible about the cows. Everyone put their heart and soul into this and Mother Nature just beat us on this one. For us and other dairies, we’re just physically, mentally and emotionally drained.”

About five miles away, Markus Rollinger, 31, did not lose any cows, mostly because his dairy is at lower elevation and protected by hills.

“It was 30 to 50 mph wind constant all day Saturday. It was relentless. A once-in-a-lifetime event,” Rollinger said. “I and my brother worked 36 hours nonstop pushing snow and clearing roads so milk trucks could get to our dairy and so my employees could go home and the next shift come in and feeders could get animals fed the first thing Sunday morning. The rest of the day we were bedding cows and helping neighbors dig out.”

He said he was worried about losing cows but was able to keep them moving.

Wood said the Dairy Federation is contacting local and state agencies for help with disposal of the dead animals to make sure it is done properly.

“It’s a huge task,” he said.

Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency prior to the loss of cattle being known, Wood said. Farmers hope that can help with assistance, he said.

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