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Newborn calf

A calf lays in the snow shortly after birth near Pryor in March 2018.

With more than 11,000 cattle killed in a brutal 2018 winter, Montana ranchers are pleading for help from the U.S. Department of the Agriculture.

The request comes just weeks before a new winter season. At issue are federal government programs that assist with deaths from a single weather event but don’t address the toll of a long, brutal winter.

The winter of 2018 was one of Montana’s worst in decades for snow, laying a blanket 20 to 30 inches deep and 300 miles wide from north-central to southeastern Montana. It was the first time on record that snow was piled so deep for months on end across such a wide swath of the state, the National Weather Service said last spring.

The Federal Farm Service Agency’s Montana office puts the death toll at 11,000, but spokeswoman Jennifer Cole told Lee Montana Newspapers earlier this year the tally doesn’t tell the full story. That’s because FSA mostly hears from ranchers who qualify for the federal Livestock Indemnity Program, or LIP. Many Montanans with cattle deaths weren’t eligible. Even at 11,000 the losses would surpass $5 million.

“LIP was really set up for big, short events that come from out of nowhere, something similar to the blizzard they had in South Dakota years ago that killed cattle. And that’s how the rules were written,” said Nicole Rolfe, lobbyist for the Montana Farm Bureau. “Consequently, last winter, which was one of the worst on record, it wasn’t really created for something like that.”

At the Montana level, FSA has sided with ranchers in trying to get USDA to make a LIP exception and recognize the long winter. The program offers compensation equal to 75 percent of a lost animal’s value. Michael Foster, Montana FSA director, received a letter this fall stating that USDA’s deputy administrator of farm programs had denied the state-level request. Foster’s hope was that USDA would apply the promise of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and provide exceptional customer service.

“Your denial of our request seems to say ‘Livestock producers, the FSA is very sorry that you experienced devastating losses this past winter, but waiving our winter weather criteria under LIP would be more customer service than we are willing to provide. So, better luck this coming winter and have a nice day,’” Foster replied to the denial.

Ranchers caught in the deep snow of 2018 recount dreadful days of digging their way out to pasture with a tractor to feed animals, only to turn around a dig a return path home through snow drifts.

“There were people north of Jordan who had to shoot 70 cows because they couldn’t feed them,” said Darcia Patten, a Carter County Farm Bureau member.

Patten, who spoke with Lee Montana Newspapers in July, said the snow was so deep at her place, she once had to crawl out the window of her truck because the doors wouldn’t open. On the white snow-capped landscape, Patten couldn’t tell if the snow was three feet deep or six feet deep. Chores that normally took a couple hours lasted 6 a.m. to midnight on the worst days.

Fighting through that snow daily wore livestock down to the point that new mothers would just leave their newborn calves to die, said Llane Carroll, who ranches near Ekalaka.

“On our own operation, we would just find calves dead out in the pasture, alone,” Carroll said. “Usually when a cow loses a calf, she’ll stay there and show a little maternal instinct. I found 20 to 30 percent of the calves didn’t have a cow to go to. We ended up with 43 orphans from cows that went into preservation mode. That young calf at their side wasn’t something they were attached to.”

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When the winter finally broke, Carroll was worried people in his corner of southeast Montana were so worn down that some might consider suicide.

Things might have gone differently had there been just a few warm days here there when the snow melted enough to expose the grass. The snow hit hard before Christmas in northcentral Montana and never went away, said Travis Buck, of Bear Paw Livestock.

“It was just before Christmas, and usually it will snow and then bare off, but this year it didn’t bare off,” Buck said earlier this year. “Hay got pretty tight.”

In a letter to William Beam, deputy administrator of farm programs, Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is asking the USDA to reconsider is denial of support for Montana ranchers. In the letter to be sent next week, Daines points out that temperatures in much of Eastern Montana never rose above freezing during the entire month of January, all but two days in February and through half of March. Low temperatures were below zero for 38 of 89 days.

Beam had earlier concluded that weather data for the region was insufficient to support making an exception to livestock indemnity rules.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.