FAIRVIEW, Utah (News4Utah) – The threat of the Coal Hollow Fire is largely under control, but cattlemen are facing a new threat – lack of feed for hundreds of cows that graze in certain parts of the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
Portions of the forest burned in the Coal Hollow Fire, which ignited from a lightning strike Aug. 4, and burned more than 29,000 acres.
Many of Eldon Neves’ cows graze on that government-owned land. Neves and his associates lease the land through a permit for that very purpose.
“It’s gonna be fine…it’s gonna be…” Neves told News4Utah as he mounted his horse and prepared to drive 30 or 40 cows to a different area of the forest to graze.
“They just need to be up there, because they are out of grass up here,” he said as he pointed to an area northeast of where the cows were grazing.
Neves said the cows normally graze from June to October in this large area. Starting Oct. 1, he and his partners corral the cattle home. The fire disrupted that process, Neves said, telling News4Utah many of his cows either perished in the flames, or are underweight due to burned up feed. Both situations affect his ability to make a living as a cattleman.
“We had 468 cattle on the permit,” he said, adding the crew had recovered about 320 of the cows from the grazing area already. Using salt licks, Neves creates a trail for the cows to follow to a better area for feeding. Dogs and horses help round up the cows in the process that takes hours, sometimes days.
“I had ten cattle that I lost in the fire,” said Neves.
“I found [one] with her feet all burned off … her hooves actually came off. So I got her up and she tried to walk – and we walked probably a quarter of a mile, but she was walking on her nerve ends on her bones. We left here there by the water,” said Neves solemnly.
“Then the rain hit…a big storm – and it tore out the whole bottom of that canyon,” recounts Neves. “I haven’t found her.”
“I think she was just torn to pieces,” he added.
Neves said some of the grazing cows simply died from smoke inhalation during the fast-moving fire.
His mission now is to recover the remaining cattle and find the ones that perished, so he can prove to the USDA the amount he lost in the disaster.
That is difficult, Neves said.
“In many cases, I won’t be able to prove that they were killed because I won’t be able to find them,” he said. He takes photos of the dead cattle he does find. Farm services, he said, sometimes covers about 70% of the loss, if he can provide proof of disaster.
The fire destroyed fencing and other structures, adding to the cost for Neves and others within the Utah Cattlemen’s Association. He estimates about $20,000 in losses so far, but that cost could rise and could create a domino effect of loss. Underweight cattle sold for beef and dairy could also result in loss.
“If you have a 500 lb. calf as opposed to a 650 lb. calf, you make about a $150 less,” he said.
Still, he’s optimistic. His main tree-cutting business continues to thrive. He drives cattle because he loves it.
“If you consider the monetary cost of what you’re doing, it’s not really smart…but it just kinda gets in your blood,” Neves said. “I just love it.”
The Coal Hollow Fire remains 95% contained, with some hotspots still active.