A tough way to break a drought: Second blizzard in as many weeks stresses plains livestock and ranchers

Deanna Nelson-Licking for Tri-State Livestock News
Back to back blizzards have make clearing roads a nightmare, combined with white out conditions. Jackson County, SD. Denny Lottman | Courtesy photo


As producers across the region were still digging out, finding stock and accessing storm damage from the blizzard of December 12th, another brutal storm struck. This one was named “Elliott.” Copious amounts of snow filled in recently dug out roads and trails, high winds piled the drifts higher and brutal cold gelled Diesel engines and froze water lines. Travelers were camped in community halls and school gyms as highways and interstates closed. Temperatures in northwestern South Dakota and into North Dakota and Montana dipped to -35 F, actual temperature, and -60 F with wind chill. In some areas, the actual temperature stayed lower than -20 F for at least 36 hours.

According to Denny Lottman, superintendent for the Jackson County Highway Department in South Dakota, his county is starting to make most roads passable but they have a lot of work to do. He hopes that by the first of the year they will have most roads cleared. “We got some warmer weather to help us out this week. The first storm we kinda had a good handle on everything and when the second storm hit it put us back to zero. And this time drifts are very hard and with the cold temps we were struggling to keep equipment running and going. It was unbearable.” 

Back to back blizzards have make clearing roads a nightmare, combined with white out conditions. Jackson County, SD. Denny Lottman | Courtesy photo
Underpasses drifted entirely shut and moving the snow has been slow going. Denny Lottman | Courtesy photo
Denny Lottman parked his horse trailer near his barn near Kadoka, SD. The drifts have completely covered it, and they are up to the roof of the barn. Denny Lottman | Courtesy photo

Cattle drifted before the wind, some being reported in downtown Chadron and Rushville, Nebraska. Many ranchers are still locating missing stock with some being found 10 to 20 miles from where they started. 

Bill Hutchinson from near White River, South Dakota said some roads in his area are still not open. “It’s been tough trying to get to cattle, roads that were opened, blew shut in the second storm. The wind was terrible, our cattle – we brought them in where we could take care of them – but a lot of folks have had trouble getting to them and some haven’t even got to their cows yet. At least we have better water now than 20 years ago since they brought in the rural water.” 

Hutchinson said that the cattle in the river breaks at least can graze on side hills that have blown clear but that cattle in the flatter country are in tougher shape. He worries that many producers will run short of hay. “That will be the next problem, guys are feeding hay now they were planning on feeding in February or March. I can remember some bad storms but not this duration, two storms and it was so cold.” 

Ross Varilek from near Geddes, South Dakota was thankful he didn’t get as much snow as other places. “We were calving 60 head of heifers, we have two barns so they were all inside. The biggest issue was they had to stay inside for so long, we couldn’t go outside with them. This was the first year we moved calving up to December, usually we calve in January. But you can handle next to anything if you prepare.” 

Varilek is preparing for his bull sale so he hired someone to clip the bulls. The professional bull clipper man was stuck in Pierre for a couple days during the first storm before making it to the ranch. They clipped bulls for several days but unfortunately he was caught again by the second storm and was forced to wait it out in Presho on his way home. 

The snow drifts are making feeding challenging near Geddes, South Dakota. Ross Varilek | Courtesy photo

Ken Lensegrav ranches near Kyle, South Dakota and he reported that they didn’t get as much snow as other areas and is thankful that most of his pastures blew clear allowing his cattle to continue grazing. “It’s been tough to get dug out and with the vicious cold it was a rough deal for a while. We have a big loader tractor that is chained up all the way around so we have been able to move snow and get to the cattle. We are blessed with a lot of natural protection so the cattle are fine. With storms like this it makes you wonder what you are going to find but we came through pretty good.” 

Allen and Zenda Haase ranch about 35 miles northeast of Valentine, Nebraska, just across the state line in Todd County, South Dakota. “We had a good eight inches of snow before the first blizzard began,” Allen said. “We fed everything really well on Monday, hoping to get back to them by Wednesday, but we didn’t get back until Friday. We probably received like a half to three quarters of an inch of rain on Monday the 12th, before it turned to snow. I talked to our county road man and he figured we had somewhere between three and four feet of snow.” 

Zenda said that they have been in a very severe drought and had been feeding their cattle since the first of October. “Our pastures were bare but the snow must have come hard enough the pastures are all covered in deep snow. We have to be very careful where we drive so we don’t get stuck.” 

The Haases have a large herd of entirely fall calving cows. The the rain, snow and wind stressed the young calves to the breaking point. “Most of them survived the first blizzard but they were so stressed going into the second one. We calve in August and September so the calves are pretty good sized. When we were out we could see some calves that were done in, and we got them in the tractor bucket or back seat of the ranch pickup and hauled them to the barn. It was all the two of us could do to load them, but we didn’t save a single one of those calves. They were stressed too much,” Zenda said. 

“From what we can find we lost six or eight cows and 25 to 30 calves. But we have drifts that are 20 foot high and 200 foot long so some we won’t find until spring,” Allen said. 

They have good tree wind breaks yet the storm blew two different groups of cattle away from the trees. The snow filtered through the trees and drifted so the cattle moving away saved their lives. “One group came to the shelter by our house, it was a white out and we didn’t know that’s what they had done. They went through fences, we found a dead calf hung up in the fence and found the main herd. Our cattle were all within a quarter to a half mile from the place but they are all tucked in close now,” Zenda said. 

They lost electricity and even though they have a generator to run the house, the well and automatic waterers aren’t wired to it, so they have also had to deal with frozen pumps and lines. They feel the water freezing led to some cows bloating and dying because they fed but the water froze before the herd could all drink. 

According to Allen some of the cows who drifted, the wind and snow took all the hair off the backs of their legs and butts. “It looks like you shaved them,” he said. “I’m 64 and I’ve never seen anything like this, it’s a nightmare. We have lost some but I can tell you there will be more lost. We are trying to get our cows bred, they aren’t milking very good and they look tough. There will be a lot more death loss before this is over.” 

The couple also has a large herd of goats who weathered the storm in a barn. Keeping the does fed and water hauled kept them busy. Additionally they had a couple hundred kid goats to care for as they usually sell them after the first of the year. 

Zenda said that they have snow deeper than their gates and completely covering windbreaks. The couple ranch by themselves but their daughter comes and helps them calve. She managed to dig out of her home near Sturgis and is currently helping them. They had mail delivery on December 12th and didn’t see any more until the 27th. They also mentioned that despite the cold their ground isn’t frozen so they are now dealing with mud as they ready for the next storm due around the first of January. 

“We keep taking care of the live ones, this has been hard but if we didn’t get moisture we would have had to sell cows which would have been harder,” Zenda said. 

“If it hadn’t of been for neighbors helping neighbors the outcome on this deal would have been far worse,” Allen said. 

The Haase ranch in Todd County, SD had some death loss to the storms but cows that lost calves are adopting orphans. Zenda Haase | Courtesy photo
Neighbors helping neighbors is how ranchers have faced the storm. They help each other feed livestock and come to the rescue when equipment gets stuck. Zenda Haase | Courtesy photo
Allen Haase of Todd County, SD, fears that as the drifts melt, the sunshine will reveal even more death losses. Zenda Haase | Courtesy photo
The Haase ranch lost both cows and calves to the storm, even with wind breaks, bedding and feeding extra, two weeks of extreme weather stress proved too much for a number of fall calves and cows. Zenda Haase | Courtesy photo

The Rosebud Reservation was especially hard hit, with 20 communities spread across roughly 1.3 million acres and many rural residences the snow removal equipment was woefully inadequate. Shere Plank, Rosebud community representative for the Rosebud Sioux tribe, said that the first storm caught the tribe unprepared. “Our equipment couldn’t keep the roads clear and even county guys trying to come help were trapped in their car. Local residents and ranchers tried to reach them in vehicles and tractors but they also got stuck.” 

Plank said they also struggled with semis and travelers deciding to use the closed highways since the interstates were closed. These vehicles became stranded and the snow drifted against them making the roads completely impassable for even emergency vehicles. The tribe knew that with the extreme cold temperatures travelers couldn’t remain in their vehicles so community centers were opened for people to stay. With many tribal members completely snowed in their homes and running out of food, the tribe hired a commercial helicopter from the Black Hills to perform food drops to stranded residents and the tribe has been delivering food and firewood to members. 

“The second storm blew shut the roads that were opened and with the extreme cold road equipment kept breaking down and they didn’t have a diesel mechanic close by to work on stuff,” Plank said. 

She said that the tribe asked for state assistance early on after the tribal president and tribal council declared a state of emergency but the state didn’t respond quickly. Outside help didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve after the storms has passed and the weather warmed up. The National Guard brought heavy equipment and spent several days clearing roads. Feeding America also sent a truck load of groceries in so that has been used to provide food boxes to families.  

Unfortunately with the inability of ambulances to reach those in need, and the bitter cold, eight tribal members died during the storms including a young boy who died of influenza, according to news reports. Many residents ran out of propane to heat their homes, and a large number also lost electricity so water lines froze and burst creating flooding. 

“I think we could have made it through the first storm alright, but it was the second storm and the cold that killed livestock,” said Shar Colombe, tribal member and rancher. 

She mentioned that they are seeing a large amount of dead grouse, cattle and even feral dogs. Tribal ranchers lost a lot of cattle, with some carcasses starting to be revealed as the snow begins to melt. Ranchers are also struggling to have enough feed for the remaining stock. Currently the tribe is in need of firewood as that is one of their main heating sources and with the snow,  cutting wood locally is a trial and many wood piles are buried under feet of snow. Roads are still being cleared and they hope to have propane tanks refilled before the next storm.  

“With those who lost electricity it is a true show of resiliency and strength that they survived. This has showed me how people can come together through concern for each other,” Plank said.