RAPID CITY, S.D. — Tens of thousands of cattle died in South Dakota following a blizzard that could become one of the most costly in the history of the state’s agriculture industry.
As state officials spent Monday calculating the multimillion-dollar impact to the regional economy from Friday’s storm, ranchers began digging up hundreds of cattle that are still buried beneath feet of snow.
“This is absolutely, totally devastating,” said Steve Schell, a 52-year-old rancher from Caputa. “This is horrendous. I mean the death loss of these cows in this country is unbelievable.”
Schell said he estimated he had lost half of his herd, but it could be more. He was still struggling to find snow-buried cattle and those that had been pushed miles by winds that gusted at 70 miles per hour on Friday night.
Martha Wierzbicki, emergency management director for Butte County, said the trail of carcasses was a gruesome sight across the region.
“They’re in the fence line, laying alongside the roads,” she said. “It’s really sickening.”
Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said most ranchers she had spoken to were reporting that 20 to 50 percent of their herds had been killed.
“I have never heard of anything like it,” she said. “And none of the ranchers I have talked to can remember anything like it.”
While South Dakota ranchers are no strangers to blizzards, what made Friday’s storm so damaging was how early it arrived in the season.
Christen said cattle hadn’t yet grown their winter coats to insulate them from freezing wind and snow.
In addition, Christen said, during the cold months, ranchers tend to move their cattle to pastures that have more trees and gullies to protect them from storms. Because Friday’s storm arrived so early in the year, most ranchers were still grazing their herds on summer pasture, which tend to be more exposed and located farther away from ranch homes.
Ultimately, Christen said, she believed that more than 5 percent of the roughly 1.5 million cattle in Western South Dakota had been killed.
“It’s much higher than that,” she said. “But I’m not sure where that number is going to land.”
Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, said the pain for ranchers is now compounded by dysfunction within the federal government.
While the government has programs to help ranchers who suffer losses from catastrophic weather events, those programs are in limbo because Congress has failed to pass a farm bill. The legislation is normally passed every five years and controls subsidy and insurance programs for the agriculture industry.
Making things worse, because the government is currently in a partial shutdown, ranchers are unable to ask federal officials questions about how they might be reimbursed in the future.
“A lot of the government agencies that we would normally be turning to for those answers are furloughed,” she said. “So there’s this sort of timing issue that’s enhancing the frustration out there in cattle country.”
The shutdown was caused after House Republicans, including U.S. Rep Kristi Noem, R-S.D., refused to pass a resolution to fund the government unless Democrats weakened or delayed parts of President Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul.
On Monday, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., pointed to South Dakota’s battered ranchers as an example of why House Republicans needed to continue funding the government without preconditions.
“Like the snowstorm, the government shutdown is causing major disruptions in people’s lives and every day business,” he said in a statement.
Whether they are eventually reimbursed for their losses or not, however, ranchers are likely to feel the pain for years.
David Uhrig, 31, a rancher in Folsom, said he estimated about 25 percent of his herd had been killed, which will mean fewer calves this spring.
“We are looking at years of rebuilding to get back to what we lost,” he said.
In the short term, however, Uhrig had more pressing concerns.
Like most ranchers, he spent most of Monday searching for stray cattle or sorting out cattle that had drifted into neighboring herds.
“It’s not uncommon at this point to find cattle that are five miles from where they should be,” he said. “Which doesn’t seem like a lot, but to drift five miles in a storm — that’s a lot.”
Dustin Oedekoven, South Dakota’s state veterinarian, said that the next immediate challenge for ranchers would be carcass disposal.
“That can be a significant source of disease spread, so we want to make sure those carcasses are burned, buried or rendered as quickly as possible,” he said.
Oedekoven said disposal will primarily be the responsibility of ranchers. However, the state also is helping ranchers get in touch with haulers that would take carcasses away for rendering.
He added that, while the federal government was in poor shape to offer assistance because of the shutdown and a lack of a farm bill, ranchers should thoroughly document all cattle deaths.
He said that could include taking photos, collecting cattle tags, or bringing in a veterinarian or farm service provider as a witness of the deaths.
“If you don’t keep good records about your losses you won’t be available for indemnity funds should they become available,” he said.