NBC News with Brian Williams
By Kevin Tibbles Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/1/2007 6:24:54 PM ET 2007-02-01T23:24:54

A newborn calf struggles to survive in an especially brutal Colorado winter.

"Normally they're tough little guys, get right up and get eating, but they just don't have the energy to do it," says rancher Bill Brooks.

For nearly a century, Brooks' family has raised cattle in this southeast corner of the state. But now they're still reeling from back-to-back blizzards that have dumped four feet of snow here in the past six weeks. Across Colorado more than 10,000 head of cattle have perished.

Some of Brooks' cattle have been stranded for a month, and with calving season under way, he says 25 of 35 newborns on his ranch haven't made it.

"They were born in the snow, and it's just too cold," says Brooks, "and we tried to pick them up as they're born to warm them, [but] if we're not here, they don't make it."

Early on, many herds relied on hay dropped from National Guard helicopters.

Now there's a shortage, and some pay double, while others count on donated hay from other counties.

"We have more need than feed," says Melinda Salzbrenner with the Baca County Extension Office, which is coordinating the distribution of donated hay. "We're trying to go with people that are completely out of feed."

Some ranchers have already been forced to sell their herds to cut the losses.

"These ranchers are just hardy people who live at the margin, and something like this can be devastating, such that they can't stay in business," says Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter.

Surviving cattle have lost weight, and that could translate into about a $100 loss per head. The ripple effect will be felt all the way to the grocery store.

And it isn't just the ranchers who are hurting. Whole communities have already spent an entire year's budget digging out.

"This will be devastating for years to come," says Kristin Rau, an administrator with Baca County. "We're going to feel the effects for years."

Ranchers like Bill Brooks, too, will feel it for years, but right now he can't think about that. With two more months of winter ahead, he has cattle to keep alive.

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