The Worst of Perfect Storms

By Larry Stalcup Contributing Editor

(Editor’s Note: The strength of Mother Nature’s power was evident in a catastrophic storm that led to the loss of about 4,000 cattle at one family-owned feedyard outside Hereford, Texas. This story examines the wrath of the storm and the endeavors made by the feedyard’s staff, workforce and a host of neighborly people and organizations in the event’s aftermath. With emotions still high, the feedyard owners wished not to reveal the feedyard’s name at this time. CALF News respects those wishes.)

“Cattle can swim – but they can’t swim through icebergs.”

Ben Weinheimer’s explanation of how 4,000 cattle perished in a freak flood/hailstorm answers how the catastrophe caused such havoc outside Hereford, Texas, in late May. He stresses that only time can relieve the pain that lingers after the tragic event that struck one regional feedyard.

Weinheimer is president and CEO of the Texas Cattle Feeders Association (TCFA), an organization that represents about 200 member feedyards in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. TCFA works for member yards to obtain state and national legislation and regulatory guidelines fair to cattle feeders and the cattle business. It also provides safety, quality assurance, environmental and other feedyard efficiency training. If needed, it supports and guides feedyards in times of tragedy.

The weather phenomenon that hit the 25,000-head capacity feedyard occurred several miles southwest of Hereford the weekend of May 27. The Texas Panhandle city is rightfully called the Beef Capital of the World. There are dozens of feedyards in the region, a key part of TCFA’s territory, which finishes about 28 percent of the nation’s fed cattle.

Before the storm, the Panhandle had been blessed with rain throughout much of May; it helped break a two- to three-year drought. There had been isolated minor flooding. However, nothing had approached the 8 to 11 inches of rain that deluged the isolated area on May 27 – all in three hours between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.

“This was a catastrophic amount of rain in a short time,” Weinheimer told CALF News in discussing information he received from the National Weather Service in Amarillo. “It was compared to a 500-year event in which 7 inches of rain falls within a six-hour period. There’s a 1-in-500 chance that you will receive 7 inches of rain in that short time – and this event was up to 1.5 times that amount of rain.”

Eight Days of Purgatory

Even with downpours, feedyard personnel can normally maneuver cattle out of flooded pens. By opening pen and alley gates, swimming cattle can be driven to higher ground. The shock that hit this particular feedyard prevented it.

While the 11 inches of rain fell, pea- to marble-size hail smothered the isolated area. It measured a foot deep in colder-than-normal temperatures. As the water and hailstones mixed, they froze together. The large ice chunks blocked the path of cattle struggling to swim out of trouble. Their fate was set.

“The feedyard crew used canoes and kayaks to help move the cattle,” Weinheimer explains. “The ice made it impossible. Cattle can swim – but they can’t swim through icebergs.”

Heartbreakingly, about 4,000 cattle drowned. Seasoned pen riders were helpless. But in respect, they showed the highest caliber of handling it “the cowboy way.” The feedyard’s owners, managers and the entire crew went to work to manage the situation. Weinheimer was contacted and immediately joined them to analyze the magnitude of the misery.

A plan had to be developed to pump out pens and remove the dead cattle from 6 to 7 feet of water that remained in the flood’s aftermath. “Other TCFA members provided us with information on oil field service operators to help obtain pumps powerful enough to move the water,” Weinheimer says. “By 2 a.m. on May 28, Quality Transfer Service from Hobbs, N.M., had the first pump transferring water.”

TCFA contacted the owners of Reihert Hay Co. and DC Caliche from nearby Dawn, Texas, both long-time TCFA members, to secure three large caliche-mining trackhoes with 6-foot wide buckets configured with chains for the morbid retrieval process. People wearing waders worked tirelessly in the flooded pens. They fastened to the cattle into the buckets.

The trackhoes then transferred the cattle to large mining trucks and front-end loaders. About half were then taken to rendering plants operated by County Services Rendering facilities in Hereford (the former Merrick rendering plant) and Plainview.

Once the plants could no longer accept the carcasses, those remaining were buried in a trench dug on the feedyard property.

In the drudgery, crews worked from dawn to dusk. Reinhert Hay Co. and DC Caliche provided additional equipment and operators as the process evolved. They were among the many area businesses, organizations and dozens of family members and community friends to help in any way they could.

“It was amazing to see the number of people from the Hereford area and throughout the High Plains that offered a helping hand. But we shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s the attitude people take in this part of the country,” Weinheimer says.

Still, their toil was near mind-numbing, as the mission seemed never-ending. “The magnitude of the catastrophe made it evident how much work would be needed to remove and dispose of the cattle,” Weinheimer acknowledged.

“We made sure to have daily, early-morning safety meetings. They were critical to remind people that since we were working long hours, exhaustion would set in. We did not want anyone going home injured. We were able to keep everyone safe throughout the event.”

It took eight days to remove the cattle and dispose of them, delayed in part by two additional rains that extended the process by two to three days. All were handled under the oversight of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Weinheimer says the Texas Division of Emergency Management also reached out during the operation.

“Along with all of this, the normal part of the yard crew was tasked with running the daily operations in caring for the remaining cattle not impacted by the flooding,” Weinheimer says. “They had to make sure cattle were sorted, processed, doctored and fed. Some pens wound up with cattle from mixed ownership, which required additional sorting. But no pen ever missed a feeding. Cattle received the same attention they would have enjoyed under normal circumstances.”

Media Relations

Throughout the event, Weinheimer was tasked with providing facts to the media and correcting false reporting. His mild manner helped him keep his cool. The disaster headlined news reports from regional and even national print, broadcast and online media. Many outlets had covered the disastrous explosion and fire at a regional dairy that resulted in the death of nearly 17,000 cows in April. They may have had the larger number of dead animals on their minds.

“I engaged with the media onsite and by phone or email,” Weinheimer says, adding that he became frustrated with ongoing inaccurate claims. “There were reports that 10,000 or more cattle had drowned. Numerous drones and airplanes flew over to video or record stranded cattle.”

The close coordination between TCFA, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and other cattle groups in crisis management situations was evident. When Weinheimer wasn’t handling media inquires, John Robinson, NCBA senior vice president of communications, took calls.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster. On some days, the morale was pretty good in getting the job done. Morale was low on others. It was wearing on all of us – whether it was at safety meetings, or saying grace over the meals that were brought out from the family and others in the Hereford community. Everyone leaned on each other to get through it together.”

The Value of Association Membership

TCFA President and CEO Ben Weinheimer praises the Hereford community and the many others who provided expertise and just being good neighbors when the flood- hail phenomenon struck southwest of Hereford over Memorial Day weekend. Photo Courtesy Larry Stalcup

From day one, representatives from Specialty Risk Insurance Agency were onsite to help the feedyard gather data on losses and assign values to cattle based on estimated weight and other economic factors important to a cattle peril policy claim. “They analyzed every detail of the claim to make sure underwriters had all information to make an accurate coverage of the disaster,” Weinheimer says.

Twelve other feedyards also had issues with the flooding, but no other substantial losses were reported. Those feedyards were spared from the foot of hail. In the days following the cleanup, TCFA held several feedyard manager meetings that had been previously scheduled.

“The objective of these periodic meetings is to discuss issues currently impacting the cattle business and feedyard operations, Weinheimer says.

“The first order of business in the post-flood meetings was discussion of the weather phenomenon and an update on the recovery activities of their fellow feedyard member. Managers asked questions about safety and whether they should consider increasing their insurance coverage in the event such a calamity hit them.

“Managers were also asked by TCFA to utilize their contacts to secure additional resources,” Weinheimer recalls. “My phone rang for days after those meetings with offers to provide equipment, workers, food and other supplies.”

Weinheimer pointed out that cattle peril insurance policies also cover losses from winter storms, tornadoes or other natural disasters. “But in the Panhandle, it normally doesn’t flood,” he noted. “Since we have an average annual rainfall of 15 to 20 inches, we typically don’t carry flood insurance.”

Weinheimer pointed out how the community provided their services during a holiday weekend. “It’s important to remember that May 27 to 28 was Memorial Day weekend,” he says. “That didn’t make any difference to those called on to help with the recovery effort. They showed up without hesitation to help their neighbor.”

One would hope such an event would never happen again. Unfortunately, freak weather events happen worldwide. Will such a 500-year storm – magnified by icebergs of hail – strike elsewhere this year, this century or beyond? We pray not.