Frozen Fury: Atlas blizzard takes thousands of cattle as ranchers tend to survivors
A ranch kid learns early the harsh reality of the circle of life. A little girl watches her dad skin a dead calf, using the hide to graft an orphan onto an eager mother, ready and willing to adopt the hungry baby and raise it as her own. One death often provides for another’s life. But sometimes that cycle goes awry and is thrown terribly out of whack.
For a rancher, losing livestock is much more than just seeing his financial security vanish. It is a feeling of emptiness, of helplessness and a ‘what-could-I-have-done-differently-to-save-the-animals-that-rely-on-me?’ feeling.
It is in a rancher’s best interests to keep his livestock healthy and happy – he’s fiscally responsible. It’s a no-brainer. Ignoring livestock or allowing them to get hungry, sick or be threatened by predators would not only mean throwing one’s paycheck out the window, it is just plain wrong. The law of the range says if you are going to take on the responsibility of owning or managing livestock, you are going to do it right. Tough or easy, sunshine or rain, you will make the right choices – your livestock will be your priority.
Stockmen across the west don’t talk about these things. They just live them.
For these reasons, a devastating blizzard like the one that blasted Wyoming and the Dakotas last weekend will bring tears to the eyes of the toughest man. It destroyed decades of careful breeding plans, of tedious heifer selection, of cold, worrisome calving nights, of stretching wire and pounding staples and serving as mechanic in the hayfield during the miserable heat of summer. The joyous sight of a new calf taking that first warm suck from mama on new spring grass was crushed in one cruel, harsh swipe – it stole the fun and the accomplished feeling one experiences while sipping a cup of coffee with the neighbor on shipping day after the calves are gone. This storm laughed in the face of the couple who scrimped and saved to buy that high-priced bull that promised to add an extra 25 pounds to the calf crop. It tangled and twisted the guts of the wisest, most experienced rancher, who had begun building plans to pass his legacy on to the next generation. That dream may now be years down the road.
Heading into fall with a strong cattle market, had many ranchers smiling and looking forward with more anticipation than usual to sale day. The day for some will now be a grim reminder of losses caused by an epic blizzard that killed tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses on Oct. 4, 2013, mostly in western South Dakota but also in Nebraska, Wyoming and North Dakota. The storm delivered significantly larger amounts of snow and higher winds than forecasts had indicated.
The state agriculture department does not yet have any total figures on livestock losses but a representative said that they are receiving reports of producers losing anywhere from five to 50 percent of their herds. Other news reports are revealing that losses range from zero to 200 head or more for individual producers.
Philip Livestock, on Oct. 1, reported 567-pound black and black white-face cross steers bringing $186.25 per hundredweight. Black heifers weighing 940 pounds fetched $144.25 per hundredweight and cull cows, bulls and heiferettes were worth anywhere from $75 to $119 per hundredweight, depending on age and condition.
While it is hard to estimate the value of a home-raised female retained into a rancher’s herd, Philip Livestock owner and manager Thor Roseth, Philip, S.D., estimates that good bred heifers will be in demand this fall, worth anywhere from $1,800 to $2,200 per heifer. Younger bred cows could be worth that much or more, he said. The financial effects of the lost livestock will bleed into communities and local businesses for years to come.
In order to make preparations for possible federal livestock loss assistance, South Dakota Sen. John Thune shared the following suggestions:
“South Dakota ranchers with livestock losses, due to the devastating snowstorm over the weekend, should carefully certify losses in the event federal assistance becomes available. Certification can include second party certification, rendering receipts, photos or video with date stamp of dead livestock, calving/lambing records, or purchase records to verify the number of livestock owned on the day prior to the snowstorm.”
The republican senator explained that because a farm bill has not been passed, no disaster assistance is available at the current time but would be available upon passage of the bill. “It is all tied up in the Farm Bill. If we can get the Farm Bill approved, the disaster relief is in there,” Thune said. He explained that the Senate version of the Farm Bill includes a Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) that would pay 65 percent of market value for lost livestock and the House version allows for a 75 percent LIP payment. Both would be figured on the value of the livestock and herd numbers the day prior to the loss. “Both are reauthorized and funded, that is why it’s important for people to keep records. If it gets approved, and hopefully it does, the structure is there to provide relief,” Thune said.
He explained that he is “hopeful” the farm bill will be passed. “We are waiting for the House to appoint conferees,” he said, adding that if the bill is passed, payments won’t be immediate. The U.S. ag department will have to write regulations and develop software to record losses and, of course, USDA-FSA offices will need to be re-opened.
“In the meantime if we can encourage the governor to request a disaster declaration, low-interest loans could be made available,” Thune said, explaining that disaster declarations are made county-by-county and a 30-percent loss of a certain commodity has to be proven within the county in order to qualify for the designation.
S.D. Department of Agriculture’s General Counsel, Courtney De La Rosa explained that the disaster designation must be requested by the county emergency managers. “It is really important for producers to keep complete records and to document losses,” she stressed.
Keep your head in the game, she said. “Don’t get frustrated because the FSA (USDA Farm Service Agency) isn’t working (due to the government shutdown). Documentation is going to be a big thing. We’re stressing this to our producers.”
She explained that the S.D. Animal Industry board is coordinating rendering trucks to quickly transport carcasses away.
Dr. Don Safratowich with West River Veterinary Clinic, said his ‘gut feeling’ is that the astronomical death loss resulted from the rain that chilled livestock before the snow and wind. “We’ve had colder storms but this time they got so wet and the body temperature dropped so much, then hypothermia set in.” The swirling wind and snow may have also smothered animals. “It’s almost like they were drowning on top of it,” said the veterinarian who practices just north of the South Dakota border in Hettinger, N.D.
Regarding animals that have been off feed and water, Dr. Safratowich recommended producers attempt to get fluids to them as quickly as possible, but he realizes this is not always feasible, and urges caution. “A lot of these cattle are down and I hate to try and pump an animal when they are laying down. I worry that it will get into their lungs.” Fluid and energy is what the stressed animals need, though, but he also understands that some of them are refusing it. IV fluids are another option, for downed animals but again, not very practical especially in large numbers.
“Initially we don’t want anything too lush or hot. I’d rather see an alfalfa/grass mix rather than straight alfalfa,” he recommended.
Dr. Safratowich added that, if at all possible, stressed livestock should be allowed a week to ten days of recovery time before carrying out weaning plans or pre-weaning vaccinations. “I know some people have their cattle sold on the video and have requirements to meet but I question how well the cattle will respond to those vaccinations when they are so stressed.” He explained that the more stressed the calves are, the less likely they are to develop the desired immunity from the vaccine.
Dr. Safratowich doesn’t expect a lot of lasting problems for the livestock that survived. “Either they’ll recover on their own or they’ll respond to treatment. I don’t think, on the majority, there will be much long-term effect on the live cattle, sheep or horses,” he said.
The storm beat us down. But it didn’t break us. Besides being the very best of livestock managers, ranchers are resilient and, most importantly, stubborn. You aren’t in this business to get rich. You aren’t in this business because it is comfortable or easy. You are in the business because it is what you love. It is a culture that refuses to give up. You will rebuild and you will thrive. God bless you.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News