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Wednesday, March 20, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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More than 1,700 dairy cattle die in weekend blizzard in Yakima Valley

UPDATED: Fri., Feb. 15, 2019, 10:45 a.m.

Cows at Hornstead Dairy have frost on their whiskers as outside temperatures reached 20 below zero Wednesday in Brillion, Wis. More than 1,740 dairy cows died in the Yakima Valley during a weekend blizzard, according to the Dairy Farmers of Washington. (Joshua Clark / Post-Crescent)
Cows at Hornstead Dairy have frost on their whiskers as outside temperatures reached 20 below zero Wednesday in Brillion, Wis. More than 1,740 dairy cows died in the Yakima Valley during a weekend blizzard, according to the Dairy Farmers of Washington. (Joshua Clark / Post-Crescent)

Dairy owner Jason Sheehan gathered his employees Saturday and they formed a plan to deal with the storm expected that day in the Yakima Valley. It was predicted to dump from 3 to 5 inches of snow. But the blizzard that hit left them devastated.

Sheehan, 44, said he and his crew set to work in the early-morning dark to prepare bedding and feed for the 3,000 dairy cows at the J and K Dairy in Sunnyside. But the wind whipped through the valley and left them powerless to stop cattle from herding and trampling each other. All told, 10 dairies in the Yakima Valley reported the loss of more than 1,740 cows.

“The snow and wind started at about 7 a.m. By 9 a.m., we had 8 or 9 inches and sustained winds of 40 to 50 mph,” Sheehan said. “It didn’t matter what we did to try to keep the cows from harming themselves. But we just couldn’t do it.”

The storm eventually dropped 18 to 24 inches of snow on the valley, which is home to about 100,000 dairy cows. The devastating loss of cattle hit a dairy industry that is already reeling from low milk prices, said Chelsi Riordan, spokeswoman for Dairy Farmers of Washington.

“Farmers are still assessing the damage and helping each other,” Riordan said. “I’ve heard of losses from storms, but nothing of this caliber in one event in the state of Washington. It’s really unprecedented.”

Sheehan grew up in Minnesota and moved in 2002 to Sunnyside,where he and his wife took over the operation started in 1978 by her parents.

“In all my years, I’ve never been a part of a blizzard like this,” he said. “In Yakima Valley, we’ve gotten snow and wind. But I’ve never seen wind sustained for this amount of time and this sheer amount of snow.”

Sheehan declined to say how many cattle his dairy lost in the wind that gusted up to 80 mph.

“Those are kind of private things,” he said. “We hate to see any cow die. I’ve got a tremendous group of people I work with out here. Everybody was putting in everything we had to take care of these cows. Physically, mentally and emotionally, we are all exhausted.”

The Sheehans previously have kept milking operations going through other storms. But the weekend blizzard forced them to shut down milking for 10 hours, and milk trucks were pulled off the highways because of dangerous conditions.

“If we would have gotten the snow without the wind, we would have been fine,” he said. “Even if we got the wind without the snow, we could have figured something out. But when you put the two together, it was like nothing I have ever seen.”

When the wind hit, the cows pressed into the corners of the pens and put their backs into the wind. They continually shifted to get out of the elements, despite efforts by dairy employees to get them to spread out.

“People need to understand that we and our employees did everything possible,” Sheehan said. “An unbelievable effort was put in, but Mother Nature just kicked our butts.”

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