Last week, West Texas farmer Larry Hancock left his home in Muleshoe to survey the damage Winter Storm Goliath inflicted on his cattle. He's farmed this land since 1978, but that day he saw a weird, alien landscape. "We're in the desert so we're used to drought, not a lot of moisture," he says. "Our facilities are designed to keep cows cool. We just don't get blizzards very often."
Goliath was different. It dumped a foot of snow on Muleshoe, just outside Lubbock. Winds, which gusted to move 90 mph, piled the snow in massive drifts and knocked down structures. The conditions were so horrible that Hancock, who owns 4,000 dairy cows, told his farm hands not to milk them. And there wasn't much that could be done beforehand — check to make sure the shelters' windbreaks were intact, lay down some extra feed and ready the vehicles with snow plows.
When he walked outside, Hancock first saw a section of his porch blown away, and soon he spotted the remains of a hay barn that succumbed to the wind. He was worried about his cows, and not just for financial reasons. Owners of small family farms like Hancock's tend to have a more personal relationship with their livestock. "I hate to watch the cows suffer," he says. "I'd keep them in my living room if it was big enough."
When he checked on his three cow barns, the damage was obvious. Just under 2 percent of the cows had died, including several babies. When cows get cold they bunch up into tight groups, which can smother those inside the huddle. This behavior can backfire in a snow storm. "If the snow piles up in the same place where they are huddled, that's not so good," Hancock says.
In the storm's aftermath, the Texas Association of Dairymen put out a press release with some grim statistics, estimating that the blizzard killed about 5 percent of mature dairy cows, calves and heifers. They now put the number of dead cows at 15,000, and other experts say the losses could be as high as 10 percent. West Texas is home to about 36 percent of the state's 143,000 dairy cows, and the association seemed to predict the losses would affect consumers. “When a dairy cow goes that long without being milked, her milk supply starts to dry up,” warned association executive director Darren Turley. “That means the dairy cows in this region will give less milk for months to come. Less milk going to market will be felt by consumers, as well as by dairy farmers."
Even as farmers continue to dig out and locate their cattle, this dire prediction about consumer impact does not seem to be coming true. Modern agriculture industry is pretty flexible, and more than one freak storm will be needed to move the market.
"I don't think consumers will see a price increase due to this event," says Dr. Ellen Jordan, dairy specialist at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. "There's a significant number of of cows in that region but it's a small percentage when you look at it statewide."
Aside from the raw numbers, the dairy industry has some adaptability when it comes to supply changes. There's a constantly shifting dynamic among liquid milk, cheese and powdered milk that adjusts to market forces, like growing demand from schools in fall to unexpected bad weather. So when a storm affects cows, the milk that is produced won't go to cheese or powder — which producers can more easily stockpile in reserves — but instead will shift to fill any gap in milk supply. Smaller farms like Hancock's sell their milk to co-ops, which then in turn vend it to producers in bulk. These co-ops can often buy excess milk off of each other to handle shortfalls.
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There's also a robust transportation network that can move the moo-juice around in tankers. "The dairy industry is very good at moving milk around to where it's needed," Jordan says. "We can supply Florida and Georgia from here."
This is good news, because bad weather does have long-term consequences to milk production. Cow mammary glands operate on a 12-hour cycle, at the end of which the udder is filled. When the milk-producing cells in the cow are under pressure, they slow down and eventually stop working. There are long-term effects to short disruptions, Jordan says. How fast a cow rebounds to making milk depends on when she last gave birth: a cow that gave birth in the last month or so will produce milk again in a week or two, while one that has birthed longer than that could take eight months to produce. "People don't realize this is a 24/7 job," Hancock says. "You have to take care of cows every day."
So what about meat prices? This West Texas blizzard is not expected to cause a price spike either, according to Dr. Ted McCollum, the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service specialist on beef cattle. He says the storm in Texas seems to have damaged beef cattle less than dairy, from his initial estimates from farm reports. About 0.2 percent of the feedlot cattle died in Goliath, he says. Snowdrifts and downed fences have scattered cattle across the countryside, and farmers are busy identifying wayward animals.
But bad weather was not confined to Texas. Rain and storms have afflicted beef cattle feeding areas in the Midwest, which will likely cause stress and shivering that decreases the weight of each animal. That may affect prices, but maybe not so much for consumers. "Prices for beef cattle had dropped severely last fall and winter, nationally," he says. "Before this Christmas, around December 15, the price began to rebound." Through this downturn, prices for beef actually stayed the same, so he doesn't expect the price to change if the price per carcass goes up. The price dip last year had been caused by heavier-than-usual carcass weights, mitigating the influence of the lighter, weather-rattled cattle. As for Hancock, he's absorbing the loss and is back to tending to his cows. "I don't know any of my neighbors who didn't risk their lives to help their animals. We did what we could," he said. "On a positive note, we've already passed the shortest day of the season. And cows like spring."