FOR lifelong ranchers, losing even a single cow is a disheartening experience; losing them by the dozens or hundreds is an exercise in heartbreak of almost unfathomable proportions.
While the totals are merely guesses at this point, an unseasonably early blizzard wiped out significant numbers of cattle in the western regions of South Dakota and Nebraska, leaving ranchers there devastated emotionally and, in many cases, financially.
"Some people know they're going to be out of business, but that's been the least of their worries up to this point," said Tim Olson, a beef reproductive specialist with Select Sires in St. Onge, S.D. "Right now, the focus has been on trying to get the live cattle up and getting them back to safety. They're more worried about the quality of life for the animals that are left."
Winter storm Atlas dumped heavy amounts of rain on the region Oct. 3 before switching to snow the next day, even surpassing a 94-year-old record in Rapid City, S.D., when an estimated 19 in. of snow fell that day. Total accumulations for the area were projected at more than 23 in. of snow on top of the rain, with gusting winds over the weekend nearing 90 mph.
Olson and his wife Chandy, a veterinarian, operate CATL Resources, a practice focused specifically on beef cattle reproduction. The couple handles as many as 60,000 head per year for more than 100 different customers in western South Dakota.
He said the scope of the unexpected snowstorm is almost unimaginable.
"Losses among our customers have ranged from 5% to 90% of their herds. It's devastating," Olson said. "You really can't appreciate it until you've seen it or visited with the ranchers who are suffering. I've been humbled by these ranchers; it's been very sobering because you just sense their despair."
He added that thinking about how the animals caught in the storm suffered "just makes you nauseous." The connection his customers have with their animals makes the overall impact of the situation far worse than just dollars and cents.
"These aren't widgets," he said. "We have serious emotional ties to these animals."
Among his customers, Olson said the worst stories of loss were reported west of the Missouri River and east of the Black Hills. Losses stretch as far north as North Dakota and through parts of western Nebraska as well.
According to the latest official figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, South Dakota alone was home to more than 1.7 million head of cattle. Even at a fairly conservative 5% loss, more than 85,000 head of cattle perished in the storm; some estimates lean as high as 20% of the state's herd that may have been wiped out during the storm, although, at this point, no one really knows the true extent of the overall losses.
Piles of carcasses
Rancher Jody Brown lives near a South Dakota town called Faith, nearly 100 miles from Sturgis. After seeing his photos of cattle lost in the storm, the town name might seem a bit ironic, if not a downright cruel twist of fate.
"We had 100 cow/calf pairs in one pasture, and so far, we know we've lost 13 pairs," he said. "We had 140 pairs in another, and we've lost at least 20 there."
Brown said ranchers in the area still had animals out on summer pastures because hard winter weather was still assumed to be at least a month away.
"Most people are off their summer ground by Nov. 1, but no one ever expects this during the first week in October," he explained.
Animals caught in the unexpected storm walked until they "hit a creek or hit a fence," and many, unable to make it to shelter, simply perished where they stood. In other cases, the animals simply ran out of steam before they could get out of the maelstrom and collapsed from their efforts.
Brown's photos of the animals — piles of carcasses in waterways and along fencerows — hinted at the widespread death loss. Other images from the region included calves lying dead in roadside ditches and animals mostly buried in massive snowdrifts.
Olson said as the snow started melting late last week, ranchers were working hard to get their remaining cattle off the range to normal wintering grounds, where the animals have more protection and better feed availability for the harsh months to come. One complicating factor is that during the storm, animals from different ranches ended up far from where they were supposed to be in the first place.
"There are so many cattle that have drifted into neighbors' pastures; there could be a half-dozen ranches' animals mingled together in some places," Olson said. "These guys are going to need months to figure out exactly how many cattle they've lost."
With the federal government shut down for the past two weeks, federal resources that would have typically been available in the aftermath of such a disaster were painfully absent.
National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson criticized the shutdown as limiting the government's ability to assist in the before and after of the massive weather event.
"With government agencies operating at limited capacity, the residents of these areas were lacking information and saw delays in reports and warnings in order to be prepared for the extreme conditions experienced," Johnson said.
He added that since U.S. Department of Agriculture offices are not collecting or receiving data, this is an "extremely concerning situation. ... Ranchers do not have access to assistance with the USDA Farm Service Agency offices closed, Livestock Indemnity Program benefits are not available and other sources of support and information are unavailable."
South Dakota ranchers with storm-related livestock losses were advised to carefully document and certify losses in the event that federal assistance becomes available after the shutdown. State agriculture officials suggested that certification could include third-party verification, rendering receipts, date-stamped photos or videos of dead livestock, calving/lambing records or purchase records to verify the number of livestock owned on the day prior to the snowstorm.
With federal disaster assistance on the sidelines and the farm bill in a state of limbo, the South Dakota Cattlemen's Assn., South Dakota Stockgrowers Assn. and South Dakota Sheep Growers Assn. established the South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund Oct. 8, via the Black Hills Area Community Foundation, to provide support and relief assistance to those in the agriculture industry affected by the blizzard.