Stranded Cows in California Benefitting From “Operation Hay Drop”

Cattle ranchers in northern California have been on edge recently with all of the snowfall that has buried grasses their cows would normally be munching on. Take Robert Puga’s cattle, for instance.

Stranded and starving in the snow for weeks now, he said, “We’ve never seen record snow like this, ever. And we’re losing cattle left and right.” His ranch lies in Trinity County, an area that’s been hit particularly hard by the state’s relentless snowfall for the winter of 2022/2023.

cows in snow
Photo: Pixabay/juliannanorrell

With spring being the calving season, there’s typically plenty of grass to feed newborn calves. This year, however, the grass has been buried by deep snow on many ranches. Puga noted he was running out of hay when he got a call offering a much-needed lifeline to his herd.

State, federal, and local officials in neighboring Humboldt County came up with an emergency rescue plan to airdrop bales of hay to stranded cattle that were starving. The plan is aptly called “Operation Hay Drop.”

Humboldt County Supervisor Michelle Bushnell acknowledged that many of the bovines in the area were going hungry because of the endless snow.
“They have absolutely no feed,” she shared. “There’s no grass growing.”

cattle in snow
Photo: Pixabay/DarMcC13

As someone who raises cattle herself, Bushnell stated that she called other ranchers in the region to see how they were faring and learned that some of them hadn’t been able to reach their herds in more than a week. After hearing that she realized she had to do something.

Humboldt County rancher John Rice told Bushnell that when the area faced a similar set of circumstances in 1989, they reached out to the Coast Guard for hay drops from helicopters to help the stranded cows.

Bushnell then contacted Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal and proposed a similar rescue operation for the starving cows. Honsal approached the Coast Guard with the idea, and within days Operation Hay Drop got the green light.

cows in snow
Photo: Pixabay/noeenz

Once authorities were able to gather the coordinates of the stranded herds, they flew out in search of the cows.

“The pilots are looking essentially for tracks in the snow,” explained Honsal. “They’ll drop the hay in the area where they are, and what they found is [the cows] start coming out from under the trees and going towards the hay as soon as the helicopter takes off.”

To date, Operation Hay Drop has been a success, a relieved Puga noted. The operation covers roughly 2,500 head of cattle over a several-mile radius.

“If it wasn’t for them, I guarantee you 110 percent there’d be thousands of cattle that are dying. Thousands,” Puga added.

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