U.S. Coast Guard Flies Cattle-Feed Mission For Desperate Ranchers

Haybale drop
Aircrew drops a haybale to hungry cattle in the hills of Humboldt County, California (Humboldt County Sheriffs' Office)

Published Mar 9, 2023 11:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard is usually tasked with saving human lives, on sea and on shore, but occasionally its servicemembers get unusual disaster-relief missions. This week, aircrews with Sector Humboldt Bay and Cal Fire helped feed hundreds of cattle stranded by heavy snow - by dropping haybales out of the air. 

Humboldt County, a rugged and remote corner of Northern California, has been hit by a series of unusually heavy snowstorms this year. Local authorities have cautioned residents to stay at home and avoid travel, but cattle don't have that option, and hundreds of cows lost access to forage with the heavy snow on the ground. Ranchers were unable to reach their herds to distribute hay, and with their livelihoods in the balance, they called the county government to ask for aerial assistance. 

“We’ve had some unprecedented weather over the last two weeks and we’ve received multiple reports of cattle dying off because ranchers cannot get to their cows due to impassable roadways,” Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said. “These cattle are an economic driver, they’re starving and they’re calving right now. So all those things necessitate some drastic measures.”

Honsal called his contacts at Cal Fire and Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay to ask for help delivering hay. The job is a little unusual: After loading up with as many haybales as possible, the aircrews fly out to areas with stranded cattle and then look for tracks. When they spot hoofmarks in the snow, they drop a bale out the door and head on to the next site. (The ranchers are still buying their own hay for the deliveries, Cal Fire noted.)

"Operation Hay Drop" has been a success, Honsal said. About 30 ranchers have been helped so far, and the California Air National Guard is joining the effort.

It's not the first time that Sector Humboldt Bay has flown a cattle-relief mission. “In the 1980s when the snow was so prevalent and ranchers were unable to get to the ranches, they called upon Cal Fire and the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Humboldt Bay (USCG) to help deliver hay to those communities,” Sheriff Honsal said.