The Winter of Discontented Cows

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Larry W. Smith / AP

Hay is airlifted to stranded cattle, January 4, 2006

In the huge inland sea of snow of eastern Colorado, people are in harm’s way but the cattle are being devastated. In Baca County, National Guardsmen are delivering medications to nursing homes and the elderly. But Baca has only an average 1.8 person per square mile. There are approximately 35 cattle per square mile here and nearly all of them are in deathly trouble. At one feedlot, an estimated 2,500 cattle are dead. And more snow is in the forecast. As many as 340,000 cattle in Colorado are at grave risk. The herds in Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma will also be decimated — as will the region’s agricultural economy.

The Colorado Commissioner of Agriculture is in despair. Don Ament told TIME he simply has no idea how many animals have died or will die, or what the future holds. The storm is being likened to the Blizzard of 1949, the worst in the state's history. "As much snow as there is, I am just terribly pessimistic, worried to death. We've requested a major disaster declaration from the President, and we think maybe we can get that accomplished so we can start paying people out there. We need to keep feeding those cattle. You don't just drop a load of hay and it's over. They're like people. They need to be fed every day."

While cattle can survive for several days without food, the stress causes them to lose body heat. Unlike some other animals, cattle won't keep hydrated by eating snow. Nor will they turn around to follow their own paths through snow already traversed. While some reports have said the crisis has passed, a spokeswoman for the National Guard says that aircraft have not spotted the number of cattle they thought they’d find and are now anticipating the worst.

For three days this week, Black Hawk choppers hovered over Colorado prairies covered by four feet of snow, drifts reaching 15 feet high. The choppers carried 20 bales of hay at a time, National Guardsmen and ranchers trying to throw each bale precisely within reaching distance of the stranded herds so they wouldn't starve to death while looking at the food. So far, 80 tons of hay — 3,000 bales — have been distributed. But the war in Iraq has stretched National Guard forces thin. Weekend maneuvers were scheduled. Winds created inhospitable skies. As of Thursday night, no more airlifts of food to the animals were scheduled.

Shirley Bonner's family owns a herd about 18 miles outside of Springfield. As of Thursday night, 100 of 130 animals were located, but more bad weather is predicted, and family members were frantically trying to chop ice over frozen water supplies and make snow paths that the animals would follow. Others used snowmobiles to ferry water in old cream cans to locations where cows might get to them. Acknowledging that the relationships between ranchers and animals aren't purely economic, Bonner spoke softly of emotional connections: "No matter how many animals you have," she said, "you know them, you get to learn personalities, which ones to look out for and which ones are pets..."

Spring calving hasn't yet begun, and there are many pregnant cows stranded chest deep or deeper in the snow. "We're starting to see the trucks hauling the fatalities off to rendering plants," Ament said Thursday night. "We want to haul as many as possible as soon as possible so we don't waste the meat." A meeting of state and local officials was scheduled on Friday to discuss how to handle all the carcasses. As the snows melt and more frozen animals are discovered, it is anticipated that long trenches will be dug in which to bury all the dead.