Local dairies hit hard by winter storm

Extra bedding is helping animals brave most of the hard weather. Along with extra feed rations on area farms. Even knowing the storm was coming, the open barns could only provide so much protection.

SUNNYSIDE — Edison Road dairyman Jason Sheehan and his 36 employees worked 30-plus hours in blizzard conditions, caring for the J&K Dairy herd during Saturday’s freak winter storm.

Despite all of their best efforts, the dairyman lost 200 cows to the blistering cold.

Sheehan’s dairy was one of several local dairies to lose animals to the arctic conditions. Conservative numbers place the loss of animals to the weather at more than 1,600, state dairy officials said.

The employees, who struggled to get to work, crashed at Sheehan’s in-laws’ home for short rest periods before hitting the feed alleys, milking parlors and loafing sheds to assess the damage to the herd, Sheehan explained.

“They were very courageous and just as devastated as we are at the loss of the cows,” he said Monday.

Sheehan and other valley dairymen are continuing post-blizzard triage, working to dig out roads to let the feed trucks on the farm, and to make way for milk truck pick-ups.

They are also working to prepare for another predicted cold blast, Sheehan remarked.

Still reeling from the storm’s blast, he said the blizzard forced him to close his milking barns.

“In the 17 years in the dairy business, I’ve never had to dump milk before,” he said, the anguish clear in his voice.

Sheehan has talked with other farmers during the past several days. “We’re all working on adrenaline,” he explained.

The East Sunnyside farmer said his farm lost upwards of 200 cows during the 30-hour storm that struck the Valley late Friday night and continued to blow well into the Saturday night. The storm dropped 11 inches of snow and created towering snow drifts throughout the valley.

But it was the wind gusts of upwards of 80 mph that was the worst factor for the local farmers.

Sheehan noted that since Saturday he operated on about 5 hours of sleep.

By Monday, the initial shock of the disaster gave way to the realization of the storm’s cost.

The worse of the storm resulted in the loss of more than 1,600 dairy cows in the Yakima Valley. Figures in Western Washington are still rolling in, but the Yakima Valley is the largest milk producing county in the state, Washington State Dairy Federation officers said Monday.

The loss of the milk producing cows and young cows to the weather is being conservatively estimated at more than $2 million, said Steve George, Eastern Washington Federation Yakima Valley Issues and Management Coordinator.

“I’ve been flooded with calls from area farmers having to dump milk,” he commented, adding the situation is the same all over the state.

Jay Gordon of the federation’s Elma office said, “Farmers also are being forced to dump the milk in lagoons.”

In addition to the loss of dairy cows, there is still the danger of the lasting effects from frostbite to the animals’ udders and other extremities, George said.

“Area large animal vets are also warning us to be on the lookout for illness like pneumonia and infections,” he cautioned.

George said a dairy south of Sunnyside suffered a loss of 600 cows due to the weather conditions but declined to name the farmer.

Many of the Yakima Valley dairies are large operations with upwards of 1,000 and more producing cows, not to mention calving operations.

Regardless of the weather, Sheehan said his employees tried hard to get to work “… anyway they could, despite the snow-bound roads and heavy drifts.”

“There were a lot of tears ‘round here. The cows mean a lot to the family and our employees. It hurts everyone when we lose some,” Sheehan said.

The wind just blew from the wrong direction, George said.

Most of the valley farmers orientate their loafing sheds to the north because of the summer heat.

“This wind just came in wrong taking a toll on the cows,” he said.

George said getting county roads open was a huge hindrance for the farmers. Employees couldn’t get to work, and feed and milk trucks couldn’t get to the dairies.

Sheehan and neighboring farmers were spending a lot of time trying to get the roads open around them.

Sheehan said he took care of roads on either side of his dairy to allow for the access and safety of his crews.

“But there were times I couldn’t see my hand in front of me,” he admitted.

“The cows need around the clock care, and the workers are dedicated to caring for the cows,” he added.

Sheehan and his fellow farmers are just hoping there won’t be too much long-range damage to their operations.

“We love our cows, and this situation is heart-wrenching.

“I wish whoever upset Mother Nature would just apologize to her,” he said.

That may not help as more snow is expected through the end of the week, hopefully without the wind, according to the National Weather Service.

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