The owners of J&K Dairy, LLC  – (from left) Tony and Brenda Veiga, and Jason and Karen Sheehan – milk 3,000 Holsteins on two farm sites near Sunnyside, Wash.
The owners of J&K Dairy, LLC – (from left) Tony and Brenda Veiga, and Jason and Karen Sheehan – milk 3,000 Holsteins on two farm sites near Sunnyside, Wash. PHOTO SUBMITTED
    Sunnyside, Wash. – When a blizzard blasted the Yakima Valley of Washington state the weekend of Feb. 8-10, the winter storm left over a dozen dairy farms with 1,850 dead dairy cows and many producers with no choice but to dump their milk down the drain, disposing over 1.7 million pounds of milk.
    Jason Sheehan, dairy farmer near Sunnyside, Wash., lost over 250 cows during the unheard-of blizzard that brought winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of up to 80 mph and 18-24 inches of snow.
    “We get 6-8 inches of annual precipitation,” Sheehan said. “I can count the number of days we have below zero on one hand. This was the first blizzard warning anyone has ever heard of in 100 years.”
    Sheehan and his wife, Karen, operate J&K Dairy, LLC alongside Karen’s parents, Tony and Brenda Veiga. They milk 3,000 Holstein cows at two farm sites. The cows are housed in a freestall barn with open sides as well as open dry lots. The dairy employs 35 full-time employees.
    The Yakima Valley, an arid region located in southcentral Washington, was forecasted to receive 3-5 inches of snow and winds of 25 mph. Sheehan said had the storm come as forecasted, the weather would have been somewhat common.
    “We use big bales of straw stacked 20 feet tall for windbreak,” said Sheehan, who grew up on a dairy farm in southeast Minnesota and has been dairying in Washington for 17 years. “We prepare for some wind and some snow. In all the years I have milked cows, I have never had dead cows from a storm.”
    Sheehan said he and his crew planned for the forecasted storm the morning of Feb. 9 by bedding cows with straw and getting feeding done. By 10 a.m., however, 8-10 inches of snow had fallen and there were 3- to 4-foot drifts forming. At noon, the decision was made to shut the milking parlors down.
    “We couldn’t get the cows to and from the barns,” Sheehan said. “For safety of the cows and the employees we shut both parlors down. In all the storms I’ve been through, we’ve never had to stop milking. They kept saying the weather was going to calm down.”
    The storm continued to unleash its fury until 11 p.m. when Sheehan saw a slight break in the wind speed and decided to try milking again.
    “We decided 11 p.m. would be our first opportunity to try milking again,” he said. “That’s when we found a lot of cows in corners pushing and bunching together. Cows were trampled and suffocated. We had the milking parlors going again, but now had to figure out our loss for cows.”
    The calves are housed in individual hutches, which face south in the wintertime. While the snow drifted around the hutches, no calves were lost in the storm. Some youngstock housed in weaning sheds with open side walls died during the blizzard.
    Because of the severity of the storm, the dairy’s cooperative, Darigold, Inc., made the decision to shut down all milk trucks scheduled for pickup Feb. 9.
    “They called at 2 p.m. and said they had four trucks in the ditch and four more in accidents, and that they were shutting down and wouldn’t be here until daylight tomorrow (Feb. 10) at the earliest,” Sheehan said. “I’ve never seen milk trucks give up. Other people who have never shut down stopped milking. We had no idea how to deal with it anymore.”
    Sheehan said he considers his dairy lucky having to dump 97,000 pounds of milk because of the lack of trucking; the milk truck had been able to pick up milk at 9 a.m. that morning despite horrendous driving conditions.
    “We basically lost 1.5 days of milk production, not including what we dumped down between cow issues and shutting down the parlors,” Sheehan said.
    Throughout the storm, Sheehan and a team of others from his dairy, as well as dairymen in the area, cleared the roads to and from town with their tractors. Sheehan also picked up and dropped off employees at their homes during all hours of the day and night.
    “I had guys we couldn’t convince to go home,” Sheehan said.
    In the aftermath of the storm, Sheehan estimates their milk production is down 3 pounds of milk. Before the blizzard, the herd was producing over 85 pounds of milk with a 4 percent butterfat and 3.15 protein test.
    In addition to the 250 cows that succumbed to the blizzard, another 500 cows have frostbitten teat ends and will likely have to be culled. The dairy’s somatic cell count has risen by 50 percent – a SCC of well under 200,000 before to now over 300,000.
    Sheehan said the area should qualify for the Farm Service Agency Livestock Indemnity Program, and Darigold may cover the cost of dumped milk.
    “Between everything we’ve been dealing with, anything will help but will not come close to the losses we’ve had and the losses that keep coming,” he said.
    Kimmi Devaney, director of community relations for the Dairy Farmers of Washington, said the widespread impacts of the blizzard will be seen in the months to come.
    “It is just heartbreaking,” Devaney said of the storm’s affects. “We’ve all heard the stories about how low milk prices have been going on for four years in a row and this on top of it.”
    Devaney said the majority of the carcasses have been composted and some have been rendered. She said the governor declared a state of emergency and as a result there are some funds to help with transporting about 600 carcasses to a landfill in Oregon for disposal.
    “The farmers were out in the storm risking their own lives to save and protect their animals,” Devaney said. “We don’t know how many cows were saved because those farmers were out there. We are very fortunate that no farmers were injured in these efforts.”
    Devaney said while dairy farmers were in the midst of crisis, many consumers were voicing their concern for why the cows were not inside during the storm.
    “What people don’t understand is the Yakima Valley is an arid region,” she said. “Heat is more of a concern than cold, and heat is what these dairy farms are prepared for. Farmers build wind breaks. They take measures to make sure cows are as comfortable as possible; the climate dictates what housing they have.”
    Sheehan said on top of the production losses and dead animals, words fail to describe the physical and emotional toll the storm had on all those involved.
    “The whole focus here is taking care of the cows,” he said. “You feel like you failed them, but you don’t know what else you could have done. The biggest thing to understand is how much effort was put forth by both the owners and the great team of employees who went above and beyond to take care of the cows. When you have grown men crying, I mean every one of those cows was born on this farm, raised on this farm. To deal with this doesn’t end. We took care of the dead animals as quick as we could, but the lingering effects of seeing what the cows are going through is devastating to the crew and the owners.”