Cattle losses from Eastern Washington blizzard top $2 million

Annette Cary
Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.)

KENNEWICK, Wa. — The estimate of dairy cows that died in blizzard conditions recently in the Lower Yakima Valley of Eastern Washington has grown to about 1,750 animals.

The financial loss is conservatively estimated at about $2 million, said Chelsi Riordan of Dairy Farmers of Washington on Feb. 14.

“It’s been a really devastating couple of days over there,” she said.

Farmers and crews worked around the clock over the weekend to try to move cows into milking barns and other shelters and to build additional wind breaks by stacking up straw.

But wind speeds of as high as 80 mph, in addition to snow and bitter cold, overwhelmed their efforts.

Dairy farmer and veterinarian Bill Wavrin called it a 100-year weather event. Sunny Dene Ranch, which he co-owns, was to the south of the worst of the storm and lost no livestock.

Sunny Dene Ranch, which is about eight miles south of Sunnyside, had 30 inches of snow and temperatures that fell to 18 below zero.

But more than a dozen farms, mostly north of the Interstate near Sunnyside and Grandview to the west of the Tri-Cities, lost livestock.

Cows resisted being herded

“In some cases they were trying to bring the cows indoors but could not get them to move,” said Hector Castro, communications director for the Washington state Department of Agriculture.

The cows tended to huddle together and resist efforts to be herded toward shelter, including milking barns.

Lack of effort by farmers and their employees was not the problem, Wavrin said.

In some cases huddled livestock were trampled. Others lay down and froze when they couldn’t get back up, Riordan said.

Dairy cows are typically kept in open lots in Eastern Washington with some roofing. The Mid-Columbia’s hot summers are usually a bigger worry for farmers working to keep their dairy cows healthy than winter weather.

The Washington state Department of Agriculture has been discussing disposal options for carcasses.

Some dairies have already made plans, Castro said.

In recent years composting carcasses in ditches has been a common way to deal with typical animal mortality expected at dairy farms.

No plan has yet been adopted for dairy farms that may need some assistance with large scale disposal, if it determined help is needed, Castro said.

The state agency also is looking at whether some money may be available to help with disposal efforts.

Washington state ranks 10th in the nation for milk production.

It’s a $1.13 billion industry in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service data for 2017.