Friday the 13th brings harsh April blizzard |

Friday the 13th brings harsh April blizzard

With 20+ inches of snow and 50-60 mph wind gusts, the Caffees worked in zero visibility conditions until it was no longer safe on the evening of April 13 to try and save newborn calves during the Xanto blizzard. Photo by Lacey Caffee

For many ranchers, calving season is strategically planned for April and May to avoid harsh winter weather conditions. Many of these cattle folks will remember 2018 for the winter that never seemed to end.

In dramatic fashion, and after an unseasonably cool late March and April, Mother Nature whipped up a spring blizzard on April 13 and 14 — one that spanned from Idaho to Michigan, down to Tennessee and across the entire upper Midwest.

Meteorologists forecasted the storm, which may have been a saving grace for producers trying to prepare for the onslaught to come; however, for ranchers calving on the range, there was just no preparing for what was to come.

It started with rain falling rapidly on already muddy, saturated lots, fields and pastures. Then sleet. Then hail. Then snow. Then the winds whipped up and created a scenario with zero visibility and snow pelting the faces of ranchers desperately trying to locate pairs, save newborn calves and haul feed through the deep snow and mud that continued to get deeper by the hour.

Ranchers Battle Xanto

For Dave, Nancy, Lacey and Treg Caffee, of the Caffee Ranch near Wessington Springs, S.D., preparation for the storm began by penning every calf three-days old and younger in the barn, rotating the cows in to nurse at different times to conserve space. Next, they built a corral around the wind break to keep them close.

“Dad was thinking, we just need to get them to stay because if they blow out onto the fence lines, we’ll lose them, much like what happened to him during the blizzard of 1986,” said Lacey Caffee. “We worked through the night to put up panels and create a safe place where there would be more protection. We gathered them around 5 a.m. on April 13 and locked the gates. We truly believe the corral saved our herd. The wind just blew so hard that they would have drifted 10 miles away, and we would probably still be picking them up.”

Typically, the Caffees calve on 200 acres with several windbreaks, calf shelters and open front sheds used during calving season. However, these facilities were no match for Xanto’s fierce winds with the open front barns nearly completely drifted in by the time the snow stopped falling.

During the peak of the storm, the Caffees had nine calves born with 35 calves to follow in the 48 hours after the storm had passed.

“As Dad would say, ‘That’s nature’s way of trying to save them,'” said Caffee. “That hard part was that it was still cold after the blizzard, so we had to continue to gather new pairs and bring them into the barns. But first, we had to dig all of our cows out of the barns and shelters. The snow was level with the roofs of the buildings, so we took gates of the hinges to let them out.”

At one point on the evening of the 13th, Dave made the call that once it got completely dark, they were going to head home, or they wouldn’t be able to get there at all.

“It was so hard to make the decision to leave those cows and go in,” said Caffee. Feeling helpless, she posted a snowy image on Facebook with the message, “Pray for South Dakota. Prayers to all the ranchers affected by this storm. #southdakotastrong #fridaythe13blizzard.”

While the ranch took a beating with 20-25″ of snow with 50-60 mph wind gusts, the image went viral with more than 3 million impressions online, and the Caffee Ranch Facebook page jumped from 200 likes to 3,500 in a matter of days.

“I wanted to post something to show people what we were going through, and I know there were many ranchers in the same boat,” said Caffee. “To get through it, we were going to need a greater power. The morning after the blizzard had passed, we were all so scared to go outside and see what we would find. My dad told me, ‘The hardest thing you’re going to do today will be deciding who needs attention first, but I believe you’ll make the right calls.’ He was right. The wind was still blowing around the barns, and we started dragging new calves on sleds to take to the basement to save.”

The Caffee family is still trying to bounce back from Xanto, treating sick calves and dealing with the aftermath of mud as the snow begins to melt. But they aren’t alone in the struggle. Near Chamberlain, S.D., Jess and Becky Rose, of the Rose L7 Ranch, lined up relatives to come watch their four boys overnight while they headed out into the worst of Xanto to try to save what they could.

Wearing ski gear and goggles to protect themselves from the heavy, wet snow, they set up a makeshift sleeping area in the tack room of the calving barn located half-mile from the house, complete with lawn chairs and a small heater.

“It wasn’t an ideal date night, but I’m so thankful to my husband for having the foresight to prepare for the storm ahead,” said Becky Rose.

Typically, the Rose L7 cattle don’t calve until May, but a herd bull got in with the herd earlier than expected last summer, leaving the Roses scrambling how to figure out how to calve under the current conditions as 15″ of snow pummeled the riverside hills.

“In anticipation of the storm, we used whatever we could find for windbreaks, from extra hay bales to our hunting buses,” she said. “We moved cattle to areas where there were shelter belts, and it was pretty tight for about 72 hours. As ranchers, we try to predict what our livestock will do to the best of our abilities, but you just never know how they will react in certain situations. We had adequate shelter for our herd and created even more for them, but they still wanted to drift to other areas. Thankfully, our veteran cows who were bred early did a good job of taking cover under trees and calving there.”

Other than being unable to reunite three calves with their moms during the blizzard, the Roses fared pretty well given the circumstances.

Meanwhile at the Circle L Ranch near Alliance, Neb., Naomi Loomis was thankful to have the majority of their calving done in March ahead of these spring snow storms.

“Most of our calves have some age on them, and we were fortunate that all our heavies held their babies in until after the storm,” said Naomi Loomis, who said her area received somewhere between 12-18″ of snow. “Our pastures have some really steep Sandhills, so the valleys provide great windbreaks for the pairs. The night before the storm hit, we fed pairs deep in the valley and sorted the heavies off into a lot that has a windbreak.”

Loomis said she knew the storm would be bad, but didn’t realize just how bad. The morning of Xanto, Loomis had a sick horse who desperately needed to see a veterinarian.

“The vet is 47 miles away all on dirt roads,” she said. “It took about an hour and a half to get there because the roads were so muddy. All the while, it was sleeting and raining. By the time we got the horse doctored and back to the ranch, it was snowing hard. Five miles from the ranch, it was a flat-out blizzard. Just two miles from the ranch, we got the trailer stuck. We didn’t have cell service, so my son walked to the house to get the tractor. By the time he made it back, the snow was up to the running boards of the pickup. We got it pulled out and made it home.”

Loomis said one lone calf found a warm home inside the doorway of an old bunkhouse.

“The calf was dry and warm, but he was looking for his mom,” she said.

While official numbers have yet to be released on the livestock losses from Xanto, South Dakota’s elected officials in Washington, D.C. are mindful of the ranchers back home.

In an audio statement, Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) said, “I know a lot of you are calving right now, and these calves and cows are in danger. There are two farm programs available as a safety net for you. The first is the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP, and it’s there to help mitigate the cost of some of those losses. That program will reimburse you for 75 percent of the market value of livestock that are lost due to a storm like we see here this weekend. The second is Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish (ELAP), which is there to help with secondary losses. Both programs are administered by your local Farm Service Agency (FSA) office, so please stay in touch with them if losses were to occur. Also, it’s important to get documentation. Take pictures. Get tag numbers. Keep a head count. Mark down the location of the death. Have a third party verify the loss is very important, as well. It’s because of these kinds of situations that we have a farm bill, and is why I fought so hard to get livestock programs and disaster programs permanently in place, and that they stay strong.”

On April, 16, U.S. Sen. John Thune sent a letter to USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue requesting administrative changes to LIP that would create more timely assistance and respond to producers.

In his letter, Thune wrote, “Mr. Secretary, I am very concerned that the livestock producers who have been tirelessly fighting mud, snow, ice, and wind during this critical birthing season are not only facing higher-than-normal death losses, but also prices in the market that are below production costs. Without adequate and timely assistance that LIP can provide, current death losses may drive many livestock producers out of business, a scenario USDA can help prevent.”

Thune requested the FSA should allow a certification or statement from a licensed veterinarian that livestock death losses are due to a weather-related cause and authorize FSA to give final LIP approval authority to FSA State Committees, after applications have been approved by the FSA County Committee.

According to the Senator’s website, “In June 2017, Thune introduced legislation that would codify these requests in law. Thune’s legislation would also get Livestock Forage Program Assistance to farmers and ranchers twice as fast and make a technical correction to the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 that would give permittees greater flexibility when grazing on National Forest Grasslands.”