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Early Blizzard Ravages South Dakota Cattle

Written by Mark Thompson on .

2013SDstorm2Tens of thousands of cattle are estimated to have died in the worst blizzard in South Dakota's history.An unexpectedly early and severe winter storm devastated western South Dakota cattle herds on Friday, Oct. 4 and Saturday, Oct. 5, creating an overall livestock loss estimated at more than 60,000 head, a daunting clean-up project and limited reimbursement chances that might force some cattlemen out of business.

“It’s a lot worse than what everybody thinks,” said Tracy Barton, the resident cutting horse trainer at North Ridge Ranch in Pierre, S.D., northeast of the hardest hit areas. Portions of Wyoming and Colorado were also impacted by the blizzard, and related tornadoes hit Nebraska and Iowa.

Barton was at a cutting horse event in Loveland, Colo., when the storm hit. It didn’t snow there at all, or at the large Pierre, S.D. ranch at which he trains. However, Jason Reed, one of Barton’s clients and a cattleman who lives less than a three-hour drive away, lost much of his herd. There were “hundreds of dead cattle” within an hour’s drive, Barton said. Nobody knew about the severe storm until it was too late, he added.

The ranch Barton trains at in central South Dakota had several hundred cattle roaming on an unprotected pasture. There would have been a disaster there if the storm that dumped two feet of snow a short drive away had hit his area, he said.

“It’s so devastating,” said the long-time cutting trainer of the impact on South Dakota’s cattle ranchers. “It’s like somebody took a baseball bat and hit them. “This blizzard just blind-sided them.”

2013SDstorm6Many cattle tried to escape the blizzard by walking southeast until they couldn't walk any farther.Reed said many cattlemen in western South Dakota and surrounding areas were caught of guard by the early October blizzard, one of the state’s worst. It had been preceded by mild weather and hadn’t been predicted. He personally lost more than 100 momma cows and 50 calves, and he might have lost many more, as he’s still counting. He estimates one-third of his herd is gone.

“You just don’t expect a winter blizzard this early,” said Reed, a third-generation Meade County cattlemen. Most of the cattle in his area were still out in summer pastures, he said. Cattle in western South Dakota are typically transferred to more protected winter pastures starting in mid-October. That’s also many cattle are sent to market. The combination of the blizzard’s severity, and it’s timing, could force him and others out of business, Reed said.

Reed is not optimistic about his chances of receiving federal disaster assistance that could save his ranch. A four-year federal farm bill that had included provisions covering emergencies expired Oct. 1 – the same day the government started its ongoing shutdown. It had not passed legislation for the new farm bill.

“With the economy and the state of our government, I’m not holding my breath,” Reed said. “This could be the last of a three-generation ranch. That’s the reality of it. This could force us into liquidating.

“We have notes coming due, and I don’t mean just me, but a large percentage of the affected cow-calf operators in this area, within the next 30 to 60 days,” Reed said. “You have to sell cows, and if you don’t cover the bank debt, you still have to pay those bills. You have to sell some real estate until you can pay your debts, and you start over. That’s the hard truth facing many of the ranches in my neighborhood.”

One thing keeping his mind off potential upcoming trouble has been day-long horseback rides to round up the surviving members of his cattle herd and count the dead ones. About 40 survivors wandered 10 miles away from where they’d been kept. He suspects they were pushed there by heavy winds and blowing snow. In some cases, they crossed fences while climbing over snowdrifts including the bodies of cattle that did not survive.

Reed and his daughter have alternated rides on his best ranch horses to get the job done, adding that has made the task bearable. “It sure is good to be mounted on good Quarter Horses when you need them. I’ve used them all until they were tired,” Reed said. “We walked to what I thought was the front [of the lost cattle] and started walking them back, then we’d pick up the others and walk them back to our place.”

2013SDstorm3A massive clean-up effort remains as ranchers deal with finding, and disposing of, dead livestock.Another tough job still remains - disposing of the dead cattle. At this point, Reed’s property is still too wet to utilize the heavy equipment needed to dig a burial trench. He and other west South Dakota ranchers also hope their land dries out before it freezes. That could make many dead cows much harder to retrieve.

“I talked to one neighbor that could count 160 head of cows that had drowned, floating next to a nearby dam,” Reed said. “That wasn’t all of his loss. He just said that he could stand there and count 160 floating bodies.”

The South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, South Dakota Stockgrowers Association and South Dakota Sheep Growers Association have established the South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund with the Black Hills Area Community Foundation to provide support and relief assistance to those in the agriculture industry affected by the blizzard. The fund will be administered by the three associations for the direct benefit of the livestock producers affected by the devastating blizzard.

To donate to the fund online, CLICK HERE.

Donors also can mail checks to the Black Hills Community Area Foundation/SD Rancher Relief Fund made out to the “Rancher Relief Fund.” The address is PO Box 231, Rapid City, SD 57709.