LUBBOCK, TX — Ranchers and farmers worked around the clock during the winter storm last week to keep their animals alive amid the coldest temperatures in decades.
The cold snap sent local cattle ranchers into a frenzy to protect their cows, but to add insult to injury, the storm struck during calving season and led to the deaths of a number of cows and newborn calves across Texas.
“There’s nothing more heart-wrenching to [a rancher] than to lose an animal,” James Palmer, a retired cattle rancher and Director for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, said.
The freeze is just the latest of a long list of obstacles West Texas farmers and ranchers have weathered in the last year alone. First, there was a drought, then the pandemic that slashed the demand for meat and now the worst winter storm in years.
“[In the cattle-raising business,] everybody plans ahead, but you typically don’t plan ahead for an event like this,” Palmer said.
Tony Mann, who runs the livestock auction house Lubbock Stockyards, said he lost a calf during the freeze.
“You’ve got to get that calf out and get it some more warmth because more than likely it’s going to die because they just can’t survive coming out of a warm cow into the cold country,” Mann said.
Other cows across Texas suffered similar fates. Some froze to death or died after walking across frozen stock tanks and falling through the ice. On top of the devastation of losing livestock, many ranchers also faced power outages, busted pipes, feed shortages and equipment malfunctions.
Now, Mann added, he fears beef production will be delayed, causing limited meat shipments to grocery stores. Texas is the top cattle state in the country, serving at home to 13.1 million cattle, according to the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association.
“It’s a hard life… You want to stay home by the fire, but you can’t because you have to tend to your livestock,” Mann said.
Lacy Cotter Vardeman, a cattle rancher, cotton farmer and owner of Cotter Key Farms, said that she’s thankful she didn’t lose any of her cows. But the storm was nerve-wracking, nonetheless.
“It’s stressful trying to make sure [the cows] have some way of having protection when a storm is coming, and you’ve got three days to get everything lined up,” Vardeman said.
During the storm, she said she was out in the cold nearly every day hacking away at the cows’ frozen water with an axe so they would have something to drink.
“We try very hard to make sure that their comfort is put before ours,” Vardeman said.
But Vardeman, Mann and Palmer all agreed; putting their animals first is just what ranchers do.
“[The storm] actually really shined a light on the resilience and dedication of farmers and ranchers,” Palmer said.