December ’22 blizzard, Act 1 |

December ’22 blizzard, Act 1

Deanna Nelson-Licking  for Tri-State Livestock News

Editor’s note: As we are preparing the Dec. 24, 2022 paper, our region is dealing with a second blizzard including frigid temperatures of at -50 F for 48 hours at a time. Livestock and ranchers are weary and we pray for safety of all, and thank God for modern conveniences.

The week of Dec. 12,  2022 will go down in the history books as a record breaking blizzard in the United States. With the 50 mile per hour winds, the actual amount of snow received has been hard to measure but many locations reported 12 to 40 inches with Deadwood, South Dakota receiving close to 50 inches. Hundreds of semis were stranded as highways and interstates were closed for days. Cattle wintering on corn stalks with little shelter drifted for miles, especially when the electric fences lost power or were buried in snow drifts. Diesel tractors gelled up and folks might be looking at huge drifts until spring. 

Brandee Gillham ranches along with her husband Roy and three sons in Northeast Colorado, two miles south of Peetz. “We did our best to prepare for the storm, getting the bulldozer attachment on the tractor, filling hay feeders completely full, plugging in block heaters, but in the end you can never be fully prepared for these extreme conditions,” she said. “The blizzard of 2022 has been one for the books. I doubt my cowboy and cowpokes will ever forget this one. Due to the extreme wind conditions it is really hard to tell how much snow we got. I would say between 8-82 inches. Actually some of our drifts are close to 12’ tall.” 

She reports that their calves in their feedlot are doing fairly well despite not getting much ground hay or corn as the wind just blew it away as soon as it left the feed wagon. “ We had about 200 cows on one circle of corn that drifted south many miles. Neighbors have called and said they have found our cattle. They drifted to the local major hay producer’s pens, we will happily pay him for the feed and time, and are ever grateful for the “neighbors” (that live 30 miles away) that are so kind and generous. Our other 150 cows that are on a different corn circle seem to have stayed put.” 

Roy Gillham walking the bulls back to shelter after their pasture fence drifted under and they almost ended up on the highway. Brandee Gillham | courtesy photo

They struggled with mechanical issues and hydraulic hoses blowing out disabling tractors. In the middle of the blizzard they found that the wind had drifted the snow so high and so hard at a fence line that the bulls were about to walk right out onto the highway. “We tried to lure them away from the fence with a bale of hay, but they were not having it. Instead my second son, took the tractor down the highway and dug out the drift to keep the bulls in the fence. Since our feed pick-up is in the shop we had to manually push the 1500 pound bale off the back of the flatbed to feed the bulls,” Gillham said. “My husband was finally able to make it to the cows after three days and got the fence rebuilt. We have two older sons (15 and 13) and they are remarkable help on the ranch. Because we homeschool we have ample opportunity to share this lifestyle with our boys. They are well versed in driving tractors and are such a blessing in situations like this. Our little guy, who is 5, mostly loves the snow, but can’t handle the extreme conditions for very long. He finds his way in the tractor with one of us pretty quickly.” 

The Gillhams are very thankful for the moisture and hope that maybe the drought will break soon. 
Across the entire region producers are still reporting and finding missing livestock due to them drifting in the storm. Many in rural areas are still trying to dig themselves out with driveways buried under unbelievable drifts, hay piles covered in snow and no where to put it.  

Marv and Norma Williams ranch in central South Dakota. “We don’t remember another storm lasting four days, with each day getting worse. This is the most snow we have ever had drifted in our yard,” Norma said. “I have chickens, they were the only animals besides barn cats that got fed during the storm, and that was a struggle, I ended up fighting through knee high drifts to get to the chicken house. Friday morning the last day of the storm visibility was so bad I didn’t even dare go to the chicken coop.” 

Their beef cows didn’t get fed during the worst of the storm. “We were short 25 head, but finally found them Monday of this week. They had drifted into our summer pasture and were waiting at a gate but Marv had to dig out a road to get to them,” she said. “Marv spent at least 4 hours Friday afternoon digging around our yard and all  day Saturday opening roads to get to the cattle.  Our main road into our place was not opened  until Monday and that had to be done with a pay-loader.”

On December 16th Governor Pete Ricketts of Nebraska issued an Emergency Proclamation for impacted counties in the Panhandle and North Central Nebraska following an ongoing winter storm. 

On Tuesday, December 13th, a severe winter storm moved across the Panhandle and North Central Nebraska, producing large amounts of snow and strong winds.  The storm has caused damage to private and public property and infrastructure, and it has prevented emergency access to remote locations.  The Governor’s emergency proclamation was signed for the purpose of providing State assistance to support opening public roads for health and safety emergencies to remote locations within the impacted counties. 

“Nebraskans in the Panhandle and North Central Nebraska have been dealing with strong winter storm conditions since Tuesday.  It’s threatened to cut off our rural hospital patients, health care workers, and anyone experiencing an emergency in these areas,” said Governor Ricketts. “This emergency proclamation will aid them in their efforts as they work to keep their communities safe.” 

The state aid includes authorizing the National Guard to do hay drops if necessary. 

 Ryan Sexson from near Nenzel, Nebraska cares for some cattle about seven miles from his home across country but 25 miles by road. He fed extra on Monday hoping to be back by Wednesday or Thursday but with the whiteout conditions he didn’t make it back until noon on Saturday. “They had shelter and were in good shape and condition. Some of my neighbors were still gathering cattle on Sunday. A lot scattered and drifted during the storm if they didn’t have good protection. One of my friends got to his cattle for the first time in eight days but they had protection and were alright.” 

Sexson brought home a larger tractor with a blade and helped dig some of his neighbors out so they could at least get to their hay. He said that most of the gates in the pastures are blown full of snow and producers are having to cut or let down fence to get around. “This storm was the longest duration that I can remember, four days of zero visibility and it never really stopped snowing the whole time. A lot of people came north after they closed I80 and tried to go west, even going around road closed barricades. Our sheriff and responders were out rescuing people in the middle of the storm. Also the linemen for the power company worked right through the blizzard repairing storm damage.” 

Sexson said he has noticed that the cattle that came into the storm in good body condition with some shelter weathered it in good shape but that those in poorer condition are looking tough especially going into the bitter cold temperatures of this week. “If you can get a cow full before a storm she will have feed to digest and that helps keep her warm. It’s better to feed a bunch before and leave them alone then to go out every day.” 

In the midst of the blizzard, stories are coming out of neighbors helping neighbors and even companies willing to lend aid. On Thursday the 15th, Rodney Paulson of rural Carter, South Dakota went to feed his cows with his tractor and bale processor. The rancher who is in his 70s got stuck in a large drift and called his neighbors, the Grans, for help. Brad Gran called his son Gus and sent him with a loader tractor towards Paulson. Highway 18 was impassable so he ended up taking a different route but buried his tractor a mile from where Paulson was stuck. Brad brought another tractor and after several hours was able to reach and dig out his son. “I told my dad that we couldn’t get Rodney out tonight, we knew he didn’t have food but his tractor had fuel and he was warm. So dad called him and he said he would be alright,” Gus said. “I’m friends with a state plow driver and the next morning, he told me about a semi hauling a tracked tractor that was parked along highway 18. He told me to give the driver a call. I did and he said he would help us but he had to call the tractor dealership first for permission, within five minutes he called me back and I gave him directions.” 

The large tracked Fendt tractor was en route from Jackson, Minnesota to a dealership in California, being hauled by Ryan Spartz. 

“When Ryan got here we fueled him up and he and I headed to Rodney’s we were able to follow his tracks right up to him. Drifts that were over 10 foot tall we drove right over. We got Rodney’s tractor out and him home after being in that tractor for 27 hours. Then we pulled out the DOT and helped the city of Mission,” Gran said. 

The helpful tractor is washed and currently sitting on the dealership lot in California none the worse for saving lives in South Dakota. 

The Fendt Tractor before heading out to rescue stranded rancher Rodney Paulson. Gus Gran | Courtesy photo
A snow plow stuck along Highway 18. The Fendt tractor helped the South Dakota State DOT make it back to Mission. Gus Gran | Courtesy photo
Buried semi along highway 18 in South Dakota. Gus Gran | Courtesy photos
Buried semi along highway 18 in South Dakota. Gus Gran | Courtesy photos
Marv Williams of central South Dakota showing how deep the drift is on the road to their home. It was blown closed for a week before the county was able to dig it out with a pay-loader. Norma Williams | Courtesy photo