Air-Dropping Hay to Feed 1000s of Starving Cattle in California

Luke Guilford | | Industry NewsIndustry News
Feeding Starving Cattle in California.
Operation Hay Drop is a go in Humboldt County, CA. Photo Credit: Redheaded Blackbelt

If you haven’t heard, California has been slammed with snow this winter. A combination of snow and downed trees have blocked off some private roads, preventing ranchers from accessing their cattle in Humboldt County. Cattle usually feed on the grass around the ranch property this time of year, but in some places, the grass is buried 6 feet or more under snow, prohibiting the cattle from grazing. An event like this was much more common over 30 years ago when massive snowstorms in the area were more prevalent.

So how does this all work? If ranchers cannot get to their cattle, they call the Humboldt Sheriff’s Office and alert them of how many head of cattle they have and where they are expected to be on the property. The Sheriff’s Office calls upon CAL FIRE and the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay (USCG) to help deliver hay. Due to the massive support needed, “Operation Hay Drop” began on March 5th. Crews from CAL FIRE and the USCG started loading their helicopters with hay and dropping it off into remote mountain fields filled with hungry cattle.

Operation hay drop
CAL FIRE Dropping hay from the helicopter to nearby herds of cattle. Photo Credit: KTVQ

The hay comes from private sources and is paid for by the ranchers requesting the delivery. I spent time this summer cycling the West Coast, and the roads near these ranches were some of the steepest climbs and most remote locations I experienced over the entire route. Combine that with the massive amounts of snow and rain that have fallen, and I can easily see the need for assistance.

About 30 ranchers in California’s Humboldt County have requested support, and there have been several reports of cattle dying off. In a statement from Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal,

“We won’t know until the snow melts how many cattle have died due to these conditions. But I know this for certain, if we don’t act, there’s going to be way more that do die and it will be a catastrophe for our county,”.

This area in Humboldt County is still recovering from a recent 6.4 magnitude earthquake that hit in December 2022. The earthquake’s epicenter was near Ferndale, CA, a small agricultural town in Humboldt County. The aftermath left two dead, dozens injured, and plenty of damage to roads and buildings. Navigating through this harsh, snowy winter has only escalated the problems the community is facing.

To make matters worse, calves are usually born at the beginning of the spring. The calves must have access to food as they battle unusually cold weather.

The latest update from Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office was on March 7th, stating this. 

“With more snow in the forecast, additional support from the California National Guard will arrive today with helicopters and troops to help run the operation, allowing for this assistance to extend to neighboring counties in need as well.”

Ranchers expect their livestock to be affected for 18 months or more by this harsh winter. The CAL FIRE, USCG, and others have been doing their best to protect the cattle. Efforts have been strong, and the results of Operation Hay Drop will be revealed once the snow melts off.

Fuzzy friends
The cattle in the area battle snow coverage of up to 6 feet in some areas. Photo Credit: LA Times

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