NRCS helping farmers, ranchers recover from Winter Storm Atlas | TSLN.com

NRCS helping farmers, ranchers recover from Winter Storm Atlas

Despite challenging weather, conservationists are working diligently – and often in sub-zero temperatures and snow-covered fields and pastures – to help ranchers recover after Winter Storm Atlas.

The three days of cold rain, snow and powerful winds of the October 2013 surprise blizzard affected roughly 28,000 square miles of western South Dakota, an area the size of West Virginia. The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association (SDSGA), South Dakota Cattlemen's Association (SDCA) and South Dakota Sheepgrowers Association (SDSA) organized community farm and ranch family gatherings reaching to outline social, economic and environmental assistance.

"These meetings were the catalyst for moving forward and the first opportunity for many of rural South Dakota to gather since the disaster struck," says Jodie Anderson, Executive Director of the SD Cattlemen's Association, Pierre. "At that time, we had serious concerns about environmental issues related to the catastrophic loss of livestock." When the federal government reopened Oct. 17, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) help ranchers begin recovery work immediately. That work still continues.

NRCS has been helping farm and ranch family victims of the storm with technical assistance and more than $2 million in financial assistance for hundreds of applications that helped with burying or disposal of livestock or repairing destroyed conservation practices.

In early January 2014, in the Sturgis, S.D. area, 15-degree weather allowed inspection and certification of burial pits to ensure they were constructed in environmentally safe locations. The animal mortality facilities are part of the conservation recovery efforts for more than 300 producers who applied for help through the NRCS' Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

Throughout western South Dakota, Atlas' three days of cold rain, snow and powerful, icy winds pushed livestock into waterways and into and through fences. Some livestock were even found more than 20 miles away.

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Ranchers and NRCS worked to quickly dispose of livestock carcasses to prevent contamination of water bodies. Tanse Herrman explained that "The secondary, and very real benefit, of removing dead animals from the landscape is for the people – the families who live off the land – to begin healing. The social effects of this catastrophic loss are deep and will take years to heal."

Winter field work is often uncomfortable, but with the right equipment and clothing, conservationists like Tanse venture out knowing their work is integral to helping people help the land in a meaningful way.

Additionally, EQIP is helping replace blizzard-damaged conservation practices. Some renovating of windbreaks and shelterbelts to reinforce livestock and headquarters shelter components of ranching operations and provide protection from wind in future storms has been completed.

In some cases, a fabricated windbreak to replace the living shelterbelt was the best answer to protect animals from harsh weather, but also protect environmentally sensitive areas like waterways. We also worked with some ranchers to replace fencing necessary for rotational grazing systems and reconstruct of ponds that were breached or continue to be threatened by high waters because of three feet of snowfall.

NRCS field employees can't fix the heartache and emotional loss they see in the eyes of ranch families, but we are responding with a caring professionalism that is appreciated, and even returned, though the circumstances have many families under significant stress.

The shared goal of all parties is protecting surface water quality, improving animal health and moving forward. And our work with ranchers to rebuild conservation practices prepares ranchers for a productive spring and next year's winter.

–Natural Resources Conservation District