Natural Foods Merchandiser

Cattle perish in winter storms; ranchers take hit

Following a recent slew of harsh winter storms in the western United States, an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 head of cattle have died, according the early estimates by the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska suffered the highest number of cattle deaths due to starvation, dehydration and exposure, while New Mexico and Texas were also impacted. The effect of these storms comes as a double hit to ranchers who are still recovering from several years of drought.

"What has made matters worse is the recent drought and the shortage of feed," said Jim Coakley, vice president of procurement for Coleman Natural Foods. "Many ranchers are struggling to keep already diminished herds healthy and fed."

Some ranchers have had to buy more expensive hay from Idaho, as local supplies have been taxed. And although cattle will eat some snow, without water they are at risk of illness and death.

Besides killing cattle, the recent storms have interfered with the regular course of business.

"With the recent droughts, lack of available feed, and now the winter storms, local business in the region has been hit hard, particularly in the area of livestock auctions," said Michele Peterson Murray, director of public relations for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

Packers have cut back on their hours because fewer cattle are available and dangerous conditions such as ice and wind make transporting and delivering cattle too risky. The net affect will probably be lower near-term profits for cattlemen and processors. Even so, the cost of meat, both conventional and organic, isn't likely to go up much.

"I don't think these storms will affect prices too severely," said Mel Coleman, Jr., chairman of Coleman Natural Foods. "Over the past 30 years, we've built working relationships with hundreds of ranchers in 15 different states to minimize the risk of a shortfall in conditions like this. However, the ranchers in this region will be impacted as their margins will be diminished."

Total disaster costs to the industry are yet unknown, although the 1997 storm, which took 30,000 head, cost $28 million. Some estimates say this year's storm costs could add up to $10 million.

In a self-supporting effort, the industry has established a relief fund through the National Cattlemen's Foundation ( Coordinated by NCBA, donations can be made online or by calling 866-BEEF-USA. Coleman has made a $5,000 donation, hoping to inspire more support for this disaster-relief effort.

On Jan. 8, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that federal aid will be made available to stricken areas in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska.

Currently, the focus is on digging out and getting back to business, especially with calving season beginning late February. However, if more rough weather hits, the storm might not yet be over.

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