This past weekend, Kersey, Colo., rancher Kevin Ochsner found himself driving behind a truck that was hauling away a load of livestock that didn’t survive the rush of flood waters sweeping through northeast Colorado.
Tears immediately filled his eyes.
Part of his emotion, he explained, stemmed from having livestock of his own, and understanding the pain of losing an animal.
Some of it might have come out of his exhaustion at the time — from moving about 180 head of his own cattle out of standing water near the South Platte River to higher ground — an endeavor that took about 48 hours between Friday afternoon and Sunday.
The other tears, he added, came out of thankfulness, that — because of the family members, neighbors and strangers who lended him a hand in his rescue effort — he didn’t lose a single animal.
“I was certainly blessed. I can’t thank enough the wonderful, amazing, good-hearted people who pitched in to help ... and my heart goes out to those who weren’t as lucky as us,” said Ochsner, whose home and two barns took in water, but who still has his family and herd in tact. “I went to bed two nights sick to my stomach, because I still had animals out there that I couldn’t yet get to.
“The good lord blessed me, giving me the opportunity to be a steward over these animals ... and the thought of losing any on my watch ... well, it just haunts you.”
Weld County, Colo. is an agricultural giant, with more than 500,000 cattle and calves — in addition to hundreds of horses and other animals — and there was no shortage of local efforts this past week aimed at rescuing livestock and pets when the historic flood came through.
“I guess ranching in the river bottom wasn’t very good risk management on my part,” said a slightly laughing Ochsner, talking about having his cattle near the river. “But I’ve talked with people who’ve been here 70 years, who’ve never seen the river do what it just did. We just didn’t see this coming. I’m not sure many people did.”
Many livestock and horse owners along the rivers in Weld County are finally taking deep breaths from recent animal rescue efforts — endeavors that reminded many rural Weld County residents, like Ochsner, of the kindness of their neighbors, and even strangers in the area.
Ochsner estimates more than 30 different people — some whose names he doesn’t even know — helped him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, moving his cattle from two different locations near the river to friends’ pastures around the area.
Ochsner’s cattle are now spread out across five locations all together.
Tom and Leslie Lange of Greeley, Colo., said they experienced the same magnitude of generosity in their efforts to move dozens of horses out of harms way on their ranch, located near the South Platte River.
The Langes are the owners of T and L Quarter Horses — a business that shows and trains horses for clients around the country.
On Friday afternoon, 16 of the 51 horses were at a show in Denver, leaving 35 out at their ranch — which, within about 2 1/2 hours, went from dry to under about four feet of water in some areas.
Leslie said there were about 25 people — some neighbors, some volunteers with the Weld County Sheriff’s Posse, and some people she didn’t know very well — who pitched in on the rescue effort, including the six people it took to save the last horse on Saturday. It had been fighting against the water all of Friday night, and was too tired to stand once it was pulled out of the deeper waters.
“It was hard. There’s just no way to sleep when you have animals you can’t get to,” said Leslie, who said Wednesday that her home and barn were finally free of standing water, but their show arena on the property still had about two feet of water in it. “Our clients across the country trust us with their animals, and that’s something we take seriously ... incredibly seriously.
“But the response, when we needed help, was just amazing,” added Leslie, who also had seven dogs, a house cat, a miniature mule and a miniature Jersey bull that survived the high-water encounter.
The Langes and many others applauded the efforts of the Weld County Sheriff’s Posse — a group of about 45 volunteers on horseback, who donate their time to assist the Weld County Sheriff’s Department at events around the community, and answered the call when the waters rose.
Margie Martinez, a member of the posse, said the group was at work Friday through Monday, doing what they could to help Weld County residents move their animals out of harm’s way.
“We did everything in our power,” Martinez said. “At this point, basically all of the owners have identified the animals we rescued. There was also no loss of human life around here, which is amazing.
“Still it breaks your heart a little ... I know people out east of Greeley, still looking for their animals.” ❖