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1,600 dairy cows die in blizzard west of Tri-Cities

Northwest blizzard conditions kill cattle in the Lower Yakima Valley

Video shows cattle that froze to death in Grandview, Washington after blizzard conditions.
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Video shows cattle that froze to death in Grandview, Washington after blizzard conditions.

An estimated 1,600 dairy cows died in the Lower Yakima Valley during blizzard conditions over the weekend and Monday.

“Absolutely heart-breaking” was how Kimmi Devaney of the Dairy Farmers of Washington described the loss.

Dairy farmers who had been in the business their entire lives said they had never seen anything like the weather that hit areas near Grandview and Sunnyside between the Tri-Cities and Yakima, Devaney said.

“People were expecting some snow. But not one was expecting it as bad as it was,” she said.

At Sunny Dene Ranch about eight miles south of Sunnyside, co-owner and veterinarian Bill Wavrin said he had 30 inches of snow, 44 mph winds and temperatures that fell to 18 below zero.

“It was just unbelievable,” he said. “ It’s nothing you would have thought.”

And he was fortunate. Weather was windier and colder at dairy farms north of Sunnyside, he said.

Dairy cows in Eastern Washington are usually kept in “open lot” or “dry lot” conditions because cows are almost always fine outdoors in the arid climate here.

Big open pens with some roofing to provide shade in Eastern Washington’s hot summers are common.

Heat is usually more of a concern than cold, Wavrin said.

Snow preparations not enough

Farmers prepared for the snowstorm and were working around the clock to protect their animals as weather conditions worsened, Devaney said.

They provided extra bedding for cows and extra feed because cows need to eat more in cold weather.

They were working to prevent freezing water in troughs and making regular checks, breaking ice when needed, she said.

To help with the wind they were creating wind breaks in addition to the ones already on their farms by stacking bales of straw.

“But even with all the precautions and preparations it still wasn’t enough,” Devaney said.

A few farms were particularly hard hit and other farmers in the close-knit dairy community were pitching in to help out at those farms, she said.

The loss of the animals was both a financial and an emotional hit to dairy families, Devaney said.

Washington state ranks 10th in the nation for milk production. It’s a $1.13 billion industry in the state, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service data for 2017.

A few dairy employees posted photos on social media of dead cows lying in open pens and backhoes being used to move the carcasses.

Some farms fared better

Sunny Dene Ranch lost no livestock, but Wavrin said some weather conditions to the north “were just insurmountable.”

“There were just some terrible things about the storm,” he said, calling it a 100-year event.

He and co-owner Sid Wavrin were fortunate not only to have been spared the worst of the weather but also to have carried over a large crew through the winter from summer farming operations.

He was surprised how many made it to the ranch in blizzard conditions, coming from their homes as far away as Yakima to help.

Sunny Dene has about 7,000 animals, split about 50-50 between partially enclosed barns with curtain sidewalls and dry lots with roofs available.

Having some barn space available allowed staff to focus first on making sure that stock with less shelter were bedded down and that livestock were fed and milked on a regular schedule.

Wavrin said he knows how hard people worked at the dairies where livestock were lost. Lack of effort was not the problem, he said.

“I’m sure they saved a lot of lives,” he said.

Keeping rural roads open both to get feed into farms and product out also was an issue over the last several days, not only in the Lower Yakima Valley but also north to the Moses Lake area and west to the Tri-Cities area.

Farmers were out plowing roads, including county roads.

“I hope everyone is a little extra appreciative for the breakfast on their table because it was a little harder than usual this time,” Wavrin said.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.
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