Thousands of cows are stranded after severe California storms. Now the Coast Guard is scrambling to feed them.

The U.S. Coast Guard, California’s statewide fire agency and local law enforcement combined over the last two days to help locate and feed as many as a thousand starving cows stranded by record snowfall in northern California.

The agencies used helicopters to drop the hay in areas where pilots and onboard spotters identified evidence of the cow’s whereabouts. Unlike regular farms that one might see on plains, farms in Northern California often exist across rolling hills with thick forests. The cows are free-range and roam over large distances.

“The ranchers gave us general locations,” U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Mark Hiigel, commander of Sector Humboldt Bay in northern California, told Reckon News. “What we ended up doing is the crews looked for hoof prints in the snow to identify where the cows were locally, then would take a closer look to see if we could spot them. Depending on how many cows the crews saw, they kicked out a bale or two each time.”

Many of the cows had not eaten in over a week after snow as deep as 6 feet covered their usual grazing areas and cut off ranchers, according to 2nd District County Supervisor Michelle Bushnell.

Bushnell, fellow county supervisor Rex Bohn and the local sheriff’s department helped prepare the bales for the stranded cows. 3B Farms, a Carlotta-based hay and beef farming company, provided the hay.

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California has experienced severe weather since around Christmas when record-breaking rain fell on the state, followed by unseasonably cold temperatures and snow in February and early March. The torrential rain caused widespread flooding and flash floods, while the recent cold snap saw chaos in the northern part of the state.

A snow blizzard hit Los Angeles for the first time in 30 years.

Humboldt County is experiencing its worst winter since 1989, according to Bushnell, who said that some people are stranded in homes fully covered by snowdrifts. It was also the last time a hay drop was needed for starving cows.

“And this time snow went to sea level, which didn’t happen in 1989,” she told Mendofever, a local news website. “So there’s nowhere for [cattle] stock to get down to some grass.”

Cal Fire, the statewide fire service, also deployed a helicopter to help feed the cows. Around 1000 cows were fed, according to Capt. Hiigel’s estimates.

The Coast Guard crew found and fed around 100 of the cows during its four visits to ranches, according to Capt. Hiigel. The helicopter would typically have been able to carry more bales in large baskets or bags, known as sling loads, that hang from the bottom of the helicopter’s winch line. But that method wasn’t possible without people on the ground to unload them.

The helicopter’s cab was able to take five bales at a time. It’s estimated that each bale feeds five to seven cows, far less than they usually eat.

“The concept communicated to us is that we were just helping the cows survive until the ranchers could find and feed them properly,” said Capt. Hiigel, who noted that the Coast Guard would continue to provide help to the ranchers where possible. “Unfortunately, we got hay on everything inside the helicopter, which is a serious safety hazard for us.”

Capt. Hiigel said that besides feeding the cows, the assistance mission gave pilots valuable experience dealing with circumstances outside normal rescue operations. That means pilots are better equipped for unusual missions that can occur when deployed into disaster zones in the aftermath of major hurricanes and earthquakes, for example.

Rain is expected in midweek, which should clear some of the snow and allow ranchers to reach the cows, according to a local blogger following events.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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