Colorado Blizzards take heavy toll


Colorado - Not yet able to fully assess the level of damage inflicted to southeastern Colorado's cattle population, officials hope for the best but fear the worst after back-to-back blizzards dumped enough snow and ice to bury pastures and trap livestock among snowdrifts more than 10 feet high.

COLORADO — Not yet able to fully assess the level of damage inflicted to southeastern Colorado's cattle population, officials hope for the best but fear the worst after back-to-back blizzards dumped enough snow and ice to bury pastures and trap livestock among snowdrifts more than 10 feet high.

Heat-seeking herds: Oberlin, KS, 1/14/07 Cattle and other livestock had a difficult time staying warm and finding food during the Western storms. Hay was airlifted to cattle in remote areas. In some cases, cattle brought to feedlots fared worse, covered in snow for lack of anyplace to take shelter.

Although most areas have since dug themselves out, the economic impact is "going to be major. I'm pretty concerned about the number of cattle that have died," says John Maulsby, DVM and Colorado state veterinarian, of the estimated 340,000 cattle hit hardest by the multiple-day blizzards.

Kiowa, Otero, Bent, Prowers, Baca, Las Animas and Huerfano counties suffered most, Maulsby says, and could record the heaviest losses among the state's estimated $1.8 billion cattle population.

Nine other states — Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois, New York, Maine, Arizona and California — have since been hit by crippling ice storms, leaving hundreds of thousands without power, including multiple veterinary practices, damaging California citrus crops and accounting for an estimated 65 deaths.

Beginning shortly before Christmas, the first Colorado storm raged more than 24 hours, says state climatologist Nolan Doeskin, dumping more than 20 inches across the northeastern corner of the state and leaving southeastern counties with almost 10 inches. Seven days later, the second storm — this one focused on the southeastern corner — piling more than 40 inches of snow in some areas.

Roadblock: Trapped herds were left awaiting help for days without food, water or shelter while people stranded by inaccessible roads were the top priority for rescue.

"It wasn't as bad as some of the worst blizzards they (residents) remember. But in terms of the amount of snow and the water content in the snow, it is going to rate up there with some of the worst storms in Colorado's recorded history," Doeskin says.

Colorado's last serious brush with severe winter storms was in October 1997, when snow and high winds killed 30,000 cattle with an estimated value of $28 million.

Most ranchers had about a 48-hour warning before the storms hit to get their cattle back from pasture, but for many that wasn't enough, says Maulsby. Yet cattle brought into feedyards fared the worst in some areas, reports Rick Birdsong, DVM at the Southeastern Colorado Veterinary Clinic in Otero County, the first county identified by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) to receive aid for recovery efforts. "The biggest problem is in the feedlot, when the cattle didn't have anywhere to go. They gather up in a corner and the snow would cover them," he says.

Despite heavy snow, Birdsong says his county's cattle population, totaling about 60,000, fared better than he had expected, with only a few isolated herds losing a significant number of cattle. But the total losses to the state are yet to be determined.

Table 1 Snowfall estimates from Colorado storms

"I don't have accurate estimates right now. I think the full impact will take about 60 days to really know because so many cattle have drifted and could be as far as Oklahoma or Kansas," Maulsby says, expecting the official assessment near the end of March.

With emergency services initially focused on rescuing stranded people, restoring highway access and repairing power outages, ranchers had to wait until early January to get help for their animals.

Through a joint effort of the Wyoming and Colorado Air National Guards and the Civil Air Patrol, along with FEMA, six helicopters and one C-130 cargo plane dropped hay bales to stranded livestock over a three-day period in early January.

Falling 100 to 300 feet to the ground, hay bales spread upon impact, feeding an estimated 16,000 cattle, Maulsby says.

Rescuers also dug out trapped herds, using heavy equipment to move snow, which weighs an estimated 15 pounds per square foot, says Doeskin.

Although some herds went more than a week without food, workers in helicopters say they were amazed at the relatively good condition of those cattle, says Leonard Pruett, Colorado State University Extension Agent, Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"A lot of the cattle are totally exhausted trying to get themselves out. But cattle went into this storm in good condition. If you go in there with a piece of equipment and break out a trail, they will be more than happy to follow you out."

Without the dispatch of Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, a national response group that aids in animal disasters, most volunteer efforts were organized across Colorado through multiple state associations, including the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, Livestock Association, Farm Bureau and State Animal Response Team (SART), says Kevin Dennison, DVM and SART director. Assigned to organize assistance at Pioneer Pork near Springfield, Dennison says about 40 volunteers from the veterinary profession, Code 3, the American Humane Society, Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine, CSU Extension Office and James. L. Voss Teaching Hospital spent about two weeks aiding the 4,000-acre facility. Volunteers moved snow with shovels and heavy equipment, herded and treated sows and helped feed newborns in a nursing facility.

"The state is responsible for helping local governments open roads, deal with medical emergencies, etc. But when it came to helping individual ranches dig out, that was a volunteer effort and we met our goal to create a coordinated, multi-agency response to perform the tasks that needed to be done," Dennison says.

Most of the other large animal breeds, like horses, fared well because they were able to get to shelter and can eat the snow to stay alive. But reports of deer, antelope and other wildlife searching for food were received, Pruett says. "It takes its toll on everybody."

Because of a combination of the heavy snow, lack of food and water and exposure, Birdsong has been doing post-mortem exams of cattle for ranchers' insurance policies, while also treating injured and sick cattle at his clinic. The most common issues are pneumonia and pregnant cows aborting or going into early labor from stress.

But, despite Birdsong's effort, "the total economic cost and loss is equally substantial whether the cattle live or die," Pruett says. Farmers will lose the value of their cattle if they die, but also endure substantial costs for feed and veterinary services to help those that survived.

The only way to avoid devastation in a future storm is to have strong, healthy cattle, Maulsby says. "It's really hard to prepare for these storms. ... The best thing is to have your cattle in the best condition possible."

While experts cannot predict the winter weather to come in Colorado, Pruett says the storm will have some positive benefits this spring, such as strong wheat and pasture-grass crops. And meat prices this year may be higher than last to help the farmers recover a portion of their losses.

"There may be some light at the end of the tunnel," Pruett says.

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