Texas livestock industry reels from storm, outages

Exposure and frozen pipes threaten cattle; dairy farmers are forced to dump milk after plant shutdowns

Bitter cold and power outages have created a crisis for some Texan farms and ranches, leaving livestock dead from exposure and raising fears that herds could run short of food and water.

Forced shutdowns of plants that process milk and make animal feed are disrupting the state’s agricultural supply chains, industry executives said. Some farmers are being forced to dump tankers of milk on fields because it can’t be processed, and state agriculture officials feared livestock may have to be euthanized if they cannot be watered and fed.


“No feed, no water, and no heat doesn’t make for a good situation,” said Sid Miller, Texas agriculture commissioner. Mr. Miller on Tuesday said he was urging state utilities to restore electricity to rural areas—some of which he said had gone without power for more than 30 hours straight—while fielding calls from cattlemen losing calves to the cold and poultry farmers struggling with frozen water pipes.

A rare winter storm over the weekend and record-low temperatures in some parts of Texas caused power demand in the state to outpace supply, as thermostats were cranked up. At the same time, freezing temperatures forced some natural-gas and coal-fired power plants offline, while wind turbines in West Texas froze and snow blanketed banks of solar panels. Texas power officials called for rotating outages to manage the shortfall, but in some parts of the state those measures have led to extended stretches without power.

The Trinity River is mostly frozen after a snow storm on Monday in Fort Worth, Texas. (AP/Star-Telegram)

The situation has turned into chaos for some producers in one of the country’s most livestock- and poultry-heavy states. Texas in December counted about 2.9 million cattle on feedlots, the most in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The state’s dairies house the country’s fifth-largest dairy herd with about 613,000 milking cows, and Texas is the sixth-biggest chicken producer, raising about 675 million birds for slaughter in 2019, according to the latest USDA figures.

Sanderson Farms Inc., one of the biggest U.S. chicken companies, estimated Tuesday that as many as 200 of its approximately 1,900 Texas chicken houses were without power, and dozens have ruptured or frozen water pipes. Mills are struggling to make animal feed without steady access to natural gas or power, said JC Essler, executive vice president of the Texas Poultry Federation, and some chicken hatcheries have been unable to deliver chicks on schedule because of icy roads.


Select Milk Producers Inc., a Dallas-based dairy cooperative that processes and markets milk for more than 100 farms, over the weekend was forced to shut down its Littlefield, Texas, processing plant after the plant’s natural-gas supplier had to ration supply to help heat residential homes. Separate shutdowns of the cooperative’s processing plants in El Paso and Lubbock have left Select’s chief executive, Rance C. Miles, with about 150 tanker loads of milk each day that the cooperative can’t process.

Now Select’s dairy farmers are dumping that milk, worth more than $1 million daily, onto their fields. Mr. Miles said the rapid shutdowns may have damaged Select’s plant equipment, and that the wasted milk will cut into farmers’ paychecks.

“You just have this system that’s all based on time, deadlines, and cows that never stop milking,” Mr. Miles said. “It’s just a disaster for the dairymen.”

Mr. Miles and other Texan livestock producers said the disruption brought back memories of last spring, when Covid-19’s rapid spread through processing plants and forced closures of restaurants and schools forced farmers to dispose of milk that couldn’t be used. In some cases, tens of thousands of hogs that couldn’t be processed were euthanized.

For Brad Cotton, who raises cattle near Floresville, Texas, the main challenge has been keeping his herd watered. Texan cattle aren’t accustomed to snow and don’t instinctively recognize it as a source of moisture, Mr. Cotton said, leaving him swinging a sledgehammer to break up the 2- to 3-inch ice crusting over his water troughs. On Monday, he hopped on a four-wheeler to drive a newborn calf out of the cold to a barn while its mother hurriedly followed.


“If we can thaw out a little bit, that’s the big thing,” said Mr. Cotton.

Between phone calls, Mr. Miller spent part of the past few days leading his own 60 head of cattle to a pond, where he broke ice to let them drink while he tried to warm himself in his truck.

“The leading energy state has no power,” Mr. Miller said. “That’s crazy.”