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Late December blizzard strikes devastating blow to Texas dairy industry

The powerful storm system that blasted a large swath of the southern Plains and central United States with a blizzard, tornadoes and heavy rainfall during the final days of 2015 dealt a significant loss to the Texas dairy industry.

According to a press release from the Texas Association of Dairymen (TAD), a blizzard, which impacted parts of northern and western Texas from Dec. 26 through Dec. 27, killed thousands of livestock. The New York Times reported that as many as 35,000 dairy cows were killed.

Darren Turley, TAD executive director, warned that there would be lingering effects for dairy producers throughout the state. Impacts could range from financial losses to the emotional burden of losing animals, he said in a statement.

Hundreds of loads of milk that were ready to be shipped for processing had to be wasted after delivery trucks were unable to get to the farms. Workers who normally tend to the cows were also impeded and in some cases cows went up to two days without being milked.

(Photo/NWS office in Lubbock, Texas)

"When a dairy cow goes that long without being milked, her milk supply starts to dry up," Turley said. "That means the dairy cows in this region will give less milk for months to come. Less milk going to market will be felt by consumers, as well as by dairy farmers."

The immediate challenge is to handle the "sudden, massive loss of animals," Turley said.

"The ordinary methods for disposal cannot handle the volume of deaths we are seeing from this storm," he said. "The Texas Association of Dairymen is working with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and other agencies to determine how the animals can be disposed of both quickly and safely."

The affected areas were largely south of Interstate 40 and included communities such as Lubbock, Muleshoe and Friona.

Many ranchers continue to search for cattle that wandered out of enclosures during the winter storm, but animals that survived the blizzard may not be out of danger yet. Experts said that dairy farmers will have to monitor their herd for after-effects such as frostbite, mastitis and other health issues.

Kirsten Voinis, a spokesperson for TAD, said it is unknown at this time whether the price of milk will be impacted. The greater impact to supply will be felt on a regional level and not nationwide, she added.

Half of the state's top 10 milk-producing counties are located in the area where the blizzard struck. Turley estimates that the region is home to 36 percent of the state's cows, or an estimated 142,800 cows. The estimated 5 percent of mature cows that were killed during the storm is likely to increase as farmers continue to examine their herds, he said.

Texas is the sixth largest dairy producing state in the country based on gallons of milk produced, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The average dairy farm in the state has 1,076 cows and produces 22.5 million pounds of milk per year, according to TAD.

The National Weather Service office in Lubbock said the 11.2 inches of snow that fell during the event ended up being the entire amount for the month of December. The total broke the record for snowiest December on record in the city.

Story thumbnail shows rows of plastic milk containers in supermarket (Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Thinkstock)

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