Living History: 'Operation Haylift' saved Utah cattle

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In the terrible winter of 1948-49, snow and cold kept Utah in a deep freeze. Blizzard after blizzard in January piled up huge snowdrifts and caused havoc in cities. In the deserts and plains, thousands of cattle and sheep froze and starved to death in brutal subzero temperatures.

It was the most terrible winter to hit the West in 60 years -- since the winter of the "Great White Ruin" in 1889. Yet this winter of '48-'49 had a great deal of ruination in it, too.

Dorothy Gray was a young wife who had moved with her husband to Fallon, Nev., to manage a ranch just as the monster winter descended on eastern Nevada. When the cold hit, she wrote, "The cattle were huddled around the old barn, freezing to death. Tails frozen off, feet frozen, new calves dying."

Out on the range, the ranchers had no way to get feed to their animals; snow had drifted as high as 5 to 10 feet across hundreds of miles of back roads. And of course, the animals couldn't possibly get to the dried grasses beneath the snow.

In February 1949, Time magazine wrote that the unbelievably cold weather had frozen "eyes, feet, scrota and udders. It also threatened next year's stock -- weakened cows and ewes would be unable to produce calves and lambs."

It was truly an emergency for those whose livelihood depended on those animals.

Perhaps inspired by the Berlin Airlift, writes Dorothy Gray, western ranchers had the idea of "Operation Haylift"-- a plan to drop hay to stranded livestock. President Truman and the U.S. Congress allocated $750,000 to support the effort, and once the blizzards had subsided, the operation revved up in several western states. C-82 Flying Boxcars began flying hundreds of tons of hay to herds huddled on the range. The Utah Legislature allocated $250,000 for Utah's herds.

According to Time , the planes flew low, 150 to 250 feet, "while airmen, muffled and goggled, toiled in a storm of freezing wind and flying chaff to kick bales out of open doors."

William B. Smart, former editor of the Deseret News , was one of those muffled and goggled men. A reporter for the paper, he had been assigned to cover many aspects of the arctic winter. For one of his stories, he helped load a military cargo plane at the National Guard hangars east of the airport. And then he went along with the Guardsmen as they flew to toss hay to sheep in Skull Valley.

As the plane approached the herds the crew opened the side doors. "We wore harnesses strapped to the plane -- in case the plane hit an air bump. We simply pushed the bales out that side door. But it was as cold a thing to do as you can imagine. Think of the wind chill at that speed!"

The bales burst on impact and those animals that still had the strength to get to the food were soon eating.

"The haydrops were accurate -- sometimes too accurate," according to Time . "A rancher who asked that a bale be dropped close to his house was astounded to see it crash through the roof of his front porch."

In another drop, falling hay killed a couple of mules owned by a sheepherder.

This adventurous, and a little dangerous, flight was part of a "great effort," Smart says. Hundreds of tons of hay, tens of thousands of flight miles, and day after day of men working to push out bales of hay saved thousands of animals and the livelihood of ranchers.

That winter saw many other acts of rescue and service. In this true emergency, the federal and state governments, communities and people cooperated to help Westerners weather the storm.

Kristen Rogers-Iversen can be reached at

Sources » Time Magazine, Deseret News, Salt Lake Tribune. Thanks to Dorothy Gray for sharing her story, "The Winter of '48-'49: A Walk in My Moccasins," and to William Smart for sharing his memories.