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Preparing your dairy for disaster

Erica Louder for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2016

The day after Christmas, the aptly named winter storm Goliath blew its way through the Southern Plains states. The snow and 80-mph wind ravaged dairy country in Texas and New Mexico. Like winter storm Atlas two years ago, this storm hit the agricultural community hard.

Months later, the toll of the storm is still widely unknown. The animals that died immediately following or during the storm only account for a fraction of the costs. Many dairies are being forced to cull cows with frostbitten teats, on some dairies up to half their herds. With several missed milkings, cows will likely not return to their pre-blizzard production during this lactation.

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Milk waste was rampant as millions of pounds were dumped when tankers were unable to reach dairies. Production loss, death loss and animal health issues will play an ongoing role as these operations establish a new normal. One thing that is apparent is the resilience of the men and women on these dairies. It is easy to see how the human spirit burns strong in our agricultural communities.

Goliath has been called a “100-year storm.” These conditions were unprecedented in the region. It would be hard to fault any of the dairymen for not preparing adequately, as they had simply never experienced such a storm before.

Learning from experience, however, there are steps you can take in a winter preparation process to mitigate your losses and make post-blizzard recovery easier.

“If you have waited until September to get ready for the winter, you’ve waited too long.” So says Jeff Ackerman, manager of Southridge Dairy in Oakley, Idaho. His 10,000-cow dairy located on mountain foothills is no stranger to winter weather. He says, “It’s not the cold we worry about; cows can handle that. It’s the wet.”

Their preparation for winter or for a “100-year storm” is pretty much the same. Starting as soon as things dry up in the spring, they scrape manure, fill holes in corrals and build up the ground beneath their shades.

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“Being aware of where your cows are at during a storm can improve your preparations for the next winter,” Ackerman says. “Sometimes the cows will congregate together to block the wind and the snow drifts around them.

A cow could suffocate in that situation. Thinking about how that is happening and what needs to be done to avoid it is what I try to focus on.”

Learning from a previous winter is key to understanding how to prepare your dairy for a storm. Your region, climate and setup are going to be variables in this process. That variability speaks to the importance of a plan.

For Ackerman and his crew, it’s all about transitioning to their “wintertime mode.” For the dairymen hit by Goliath, their winter preparations are likely milder given the milder weather, but that makes the preparations immediately before the storm even more important.

Clovis, New Mexico-based dairy producers Daniel and Tara Vander Dussen spoke about their preparation process with a couple days’ forewarning of Goliath. “We made a plan and then discussed it with our employees.

With Christmas being two days before, we were already a little short-staffed. We played catch-up on the Saturday prior to the storm in order to be ready.”

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Describing that process, Vander Dussen says, “We scraped pens and prepared equipment by filling all the fuel tanks. We had all the equipment’s block heaters plugged in so they would start.

We had bedding ready for the calves and boarded up their hutches for extra protection from the wind. We had windblocks ready to protect the cows and stop the wind.”

If you are just preparing for winter or preparing for a blizzard, equipment should be high on the priority list. For Southridge Dairy it’s all about being able to move a lot of snow. Ackerman says, “We farm as well as dairy, so we have a large fleet of equipment at our disposal.

For the kind of snow we experience, having enough equipment and the right type of equipment is important.” Jokingly, he adds, “We can probably move more snow than the highway district when you get right down to it.” Even without that size of fleet, maintaining and preparing the equipment you do have is critical.

Anticipate what supplies you will need before a storm hits. Southridge Dairy has their winter teat dip delivered in November so it’s always on hand during the winter months. When the temperature drops, they can easily transition the dip.

Using winter teat dip was an important tool the Vander Dussens used to protect their cows from frostbite. Even so, when asked what they would have changed, they spoke of their desire for additional products for preventing and treating frostbite.

Having enough supplies can also mean having plenty of straw. For Southridge, straw is for more than just cow bedding. Straw is stacked two bales high up the mile-long driveway to ensure milk trucks can access the dairy.

It is also used around the perimeter as a wind and snow block for the corrals. Thinking about your individual situation, how the dairy sits, what direction the wind blows or quality of the roads leading to your dairy is important in your winter planning.

In your preparation efforts, don’t ignore human capital. Ackerman spoke about Christmas Day several years ago when they worked until 7 p.m. in the aftermath of a storm. He says, “We worked longer until the alleys were cleaned and cows were fed. You do what needs to get done.”

Knowing that your employees are going to work those long hours, make sure you are prepared for their needs as well. Vander Dussen says, “We purchased extra food and water to feed us and our employees. We gathered blankets and sleeping bags.” They did this knowing that shift changes were unlikely in the face of Goliath.

For a remote dairy like Southridge, Ackerman and his crew establish several rendezvous points at the first of winter. The employees know that in the case of bad weather, if they can make it to that location from their homes they will be picked up and taken the rest of the way to the dairy.

Ackerman adds, “We take care of our animals and we take care of our employees. Getting people to and from work is part of that process.”

Once a storm hits, take care of things in priority. “Cows need to be fed and watered, cows then need milked, and cows need bedded. This isn’t just a priority list in the winter or during a storm; we work through those priorities every day,” Ackerman says. “Plan for the really bad days; for us that’s 16 inches of snow and 25-mph wind. If you are ready for that, you can handle anything less.”

Speaking of the time immediately following Goliath, the Vander Dussens echo a similar sentiment. “Our main priority was feed, water and then milking. We wanted to get back in a routine. It took almost two days after the storm to get back to our ‘new’ normal post-blizzard.

We removed as much snow as possible and started milking cows and treating cows.”

After a storm blows through, often the real works starts. For the New Mexico and Texas dairymen, that meant taking care of the survivors, both human and bovine, before counting their losses. Getting back to a routine, albeit a new routine, was critical.

During a normal winter, or during an extraordinary winter, there will be losses despite planning and preparation. Those losses may be a drop in milk production and accumulated push-outs the day following snow or heavy culls from frostbite and dumped milk the days following a blizzard.

You may not want to consider these scenarios, but they need considering nonetheless. What makes it possible to get through them is what we’ve learned from the Goliath “survivors” – it’s the widespread resilience in the dairy community.

Prepare for what you can, and work through what you can’t.  PD

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

You can read about more about the Vander Dussens’ dairy and their Goliath recovery at New Mexico Milkmaid.

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