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Ranchers search on Facebook for missing cows after storm

Ranchers and dairy farmers in New Mexico and western Texas have gone online in their search for thousands of missing cattle a week after an historic two-day blizzard buried herds.

The storm that began Dec. 26, dubbed Goliath, may have killed as many as 27,000 cows in Texas, according to industry estimates. The following Monday, Landon Weatherly, a rancher from Friona, Texas, who’s still trying to find some of his family’s runaway cattle, created the Facebook group “Cattle Lost and Found,” which now has over 4,000 followers. It’s full of posts seeking livestock identified by ear tags and brands, as well as videos, anecdotes and notes of encouragement.

“When you can’t see your cattle, it’s probably one of the worst feelings,” Weatherly said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “It was a mess, and it still is.”

Locals are still struggling to get dairies, ranches and feedlots running again, digging animals out from under snow, using the bodies of those that didn’t survive as compost or taking them to landfills. Farmers and industry observers say the region’s dairy industry will take a hard hit.

Goliath brought 90 mile-an-hour winds that created 15-foot- high (4.6-meter) snow drifts. Weatherly said he could only pray for his cattle during the storm. He spent days preparing, putting out protective bales of hay, but whiteout conditions kept him from going into the pastures and checking on the animals. Weatherly and his family lost as many as 80 cows in the storm, some of which have been found alive by neighbors.

The Texas Association of Dairymen reported 15,000 cows died. The Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, which tracks cattle grazing in pastures, said as many as 8,000 perished, while the Texas Cattle Feeders Association said 4,000 died on feedlots. There are no firm estimates for dairy cow losses in New Mexico, though the damage is serious, said Robert Hagevoort, a dairy specialist at New Mexico State University.

The dairy industry was hit harder than the cattle industry in New Mexico, said Katie Goetz, a spokeswoman at the state’s Department of Agriculture. Cows there are among the most efficient in the nation, largely due to the state’s normally arid and temperate weather, said Beverly Idsinga, executive director at the Dairy Producers of New Mexico. Output is likely to decline as even surviving animals will produce less because of stress caused by the storm.

Dairy cows in the region are housed outdoors, and in the storm they instinctively huddled together in corners of their corrals, where the snow piled over them and froze them to death, Hagevoort at New Mexico State University said. Calves are housed in 5-foot-tall calf bungalows and also were buried, but they were found alive as the hutches acted like igloos, keeping the animals warm and calm inside.

Some producers in Texas were able to get out to open lots and break up the clusters of cattle, but conditions were too dangerous and deadly in other areas, said Ellen Jordan, a professor at Texas A&M University.

Much of the milk produced in the region affected by the storm is used to produce cheese. Despite the death of so many cattle, the U.S. dairy market is still weighed down by large inventories and booming Midwest production. Losses at Texas and New Mexico dairies may bolster a price recovery in the long term, said Eric Meyer, president of HighGround Dairy in Chicago.

“When we see the turnaround, it could occur quicker because we won’t have the cows in the pipeline to fill that need or demand,” Meyer said in a telephone interview.

Farms are already picking back up. In Texas, dairy operations affected by Goliath are 80 percent to 95 percent of pre-storm production levels, said Texas A&M’s Jordan.

Alan Anderson, the owner of Anderson Dairy Inc. in Portales, New Mexico, lost 82 of his 1,450 dairy cows. Some of his surviving animals could still die from frostbite and related complications, he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Anderson, who’s been in the area for about 30 years. Neighbors and friends have since helped the dairy farmer shovel out hutches, break ice- ridden paths and drag out dead cows. Anderson is trying to move forward.

“You get up,” he said. “What you do is just forge on ahead.”

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