Government shutdown leaves producers dangling in wake of blizzard

Oct 14, 2013

In parts of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska, the lingering of warm summer weather came to an abrupt end Oct. 3, as cattle on leases began to head home two to three weeks early, ready or not, in the wake of what has been described as a “perfect storm.”

But the word “perfect” is far from the descriptive word that ranchers in the area would use to describe the scenes they are encountering daily since the storm’s arrival. Blizzard conditions blasted through the three states starting Thursday and continuing through Saturday morning, leaving in its wake total devastation.

As of midday Saturday, Oct 5, a trained spotter reported 48 inches of snow near Deadwood, SD, with local reports calling in 55 inches southeast of Beulah, WY. Along with the record snowfall came wind gusts reaching up to 70 mph in areas.

At Rapid City, SD, 23.1 inches were measured, which sets a new record for total October snowfall. The one-day total of 19 inches on Oct. 4 is the highest one-day total for the month of October, and ranks third highest ever in the city’s record. This recent blizzard also adds to an already snowy year for Rapid City with 85.7 inches since January, ranking 2013 as the second snowiest calendar year. The current record of 94 inches was from 2009.

Six days later, the devastation from the storm is slowly being uncovered, literally, as the snow has yet to melt completely despite 50 degree weather in most of the areas.

The “perfect storm” started out with heavy rain, followed by a wet, heavy snow and then the wind gusts. It was three seasons of storms covered in two to three days—summer, fall, and winter— ending with 7- and 8- feet-tall drifts of snow.

Downed fences, blocked roads, damaged trees, collapsed roofs, extensive power outages—all are the talk of the towns. But the bigger picture, the full economic impact, is still unknown.

Stories and gruesome images are unfolding on the social media networks of piles of dead cattle being found, in some areas two and three deep. Jule Lamb with the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Transportation Department told reporters she was traveling near Dupree, SD, when she came to a stop, seeing something partially buried by the snow. On closer inspection, she found a pile of cattle.

A Facebook page called the South Dakota Cattle Locator—created to help owners find animals, both alive and dead—was filling up quickly.

By the weekend, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard had declared a state of emergency in western South Dakota and put National Guard troops on the ground to assist with the worst winter storm on record in the Black Hills.

Nebraska Lieutenant Governor Lavon Heidemann and a state emergency team met with local officials in Chadron, Crawford and Harrison. Heidemann, a longtime farmer, said he was surprised by the number of the livestock deaths, which was expected to rise into the thousands.

“It was worse than I thought,” Heidemann told reporters.

Jack Hunter with Crawford Livestock Market said the storm will likely put some producers in his area out of business and also was taking its toll on sale auction numbers.

“We are going to end up with maybe 4,000, and we should have had 6,500,” he said, referring to the Oct. 11 sale.

Hunter has heard stories ranging anywhere from 10 to 85 percent of herd losses, with heifers taking the brunt of the loss. And the recovery, he believes will take years, especially with the deadlock in D.C.

“With no farm bill, we are just up against a wall. If we ran our business like they are running the government, we’d be fired,” he added.

Also dubbed the “blizzard that never was,” mainstream media seemed slow to pick up any of the coverage. With priority placed on the federal government shutdown, the blizzard was just a blip on the radar. But U.S. Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) agrees that the government shutdown will continue to add to the growing devastation in the storm’s aftermath.

“While total losses are still being determined, this major blizzard has killed huge numbers of livestock across western South Dakota. Exacerbating these losses is the fact that the government shutdown has shuttered USDA’s Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) offices across the state. As a result, producers don’t even have anyone to contact at USDA for assistance in documenting losses,” Johnson said.

“While snowstorms happen, government shutdowns are unnatural events,” Johnson pointed out. “The House needs to pass a clean Continuing Resolution not just for the sake of South Dakota’s ranchers, but for the good of the country.”

Cattle loss numbers have been reported as high as 5 percent in South Dakota alone, which would come in at 75,000 head of the 3.8 million in the state, but with snow still on the ground, it could be even higher once ranchers are finally able to get a good count.

“Producers and families’ members are busy trying to recover from the results of this terrible blizzard. At the present time, we don’t know if there will be any governmental program to assist ranchers. This may take a while because the federal shutdown has furloughed key local USDA staff,” said Julie Walker, South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension Beef Specialist.

The cattle across the states were still on summer pastures with a few more weeks of grazing ahead when the storms hit, with little to no winter coat growth. Hypothermia was quick to set in for most of the animals and others may have suffocated in drifts, according to reports.

Property damage was also widespread.

At least 90 percent of the properties in Chadron, NE, saw some type of damage, mostly to trees that collapsed under wet, heavy snow and wind, said city manager Wayne Anderson. In northeast Nebraska, tornadoes caused millions in damage to a business district and injured 15.

Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) assistant director Al Berndt toured the damage in western Nebraska, calling it “extensive.”

“Probably the more significant impact is the reports coming in from the ranching community of the loss of livestock that succumb to the effects of the storm. I have talked to one rancher who lost 300 head of his cattle, and this is just the ones they’ve been able to get to. He has other cattle that are still out on summer pasture out in Sioux County they haven’t been able to get to. So they don’t know the full extent. Reports of in excess of 100 head of cattle froze to death, died in the pins at the livestock auction in Crawford and initial information is talking that the loss of livestock could be in the thousands. That presents another problem in terms of disposal of the carcasses and how you handle that, and, because of the nature of the storm and now the melting, that’s going to take some time for those ranchers to not only find their cattle but get to them,” Berndt shared in an interview with NET News.

The final numbers are still coming in, and clean up is still a long ways off.

“Preliminary precipitation totals have been difficult to come by,” said Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension Climate Field Specialist. “A lot of our weather observers in rural areas of northwestern counties are still without power and phone, or have larger issues to deal with.”

She said the snowfall amounts were challenging to measure, given 60 mph winds in blizzard conditions. The top snowfall amounts were in the northern Black Hills area, with reports of 40 to 60 inches over the three-day period. Widespread 20-plus inch amounts reached into the plains north and east of the Black Hills.

South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association (SDCA) was also still trying to gather information on the storm’s actual impact, but shared some timely, albeit somewhat depressing, information for producers impacted, relating to potential government help in the wake of the storm:

• Livestock disaster programs expired with the Farm Bill on Sept. 30.

• Both the House and Senate Farm Bills re-authorize the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) with funding at different levels: 65 percent of market value in the Senate version and 75 percent of market value in the House version. It’s unclear what level of assistance may be available through LIP until the Farm Bill is finalized.

• Document your losses! If and when the Farm Bill is finalized, it’s likely livestock losses will be covered retroactively. Losses should be documented as soon as possible after the storm. The more information you have, the better.

• Verify your inventory, and verify your losses and where those losses took place, if possible. Take pictures, write down lost cattle’s ID tag number, if possible, and get a head count.

• Be sure you have a disinterested third party verify your losses. This could be a neighbor, vet or someone other than a family member or farm laborer. They should visually see the losses and write, sign and date a note with their name, verifying that they saw the losses and the number of cattle. If available, rendering receipts are also considered third party verification.

• Contact the Animal Industry Board with questions about carcass disposal: 605/773-3321

• Other questions may be directed to your county Emergency Management office.

SDCA, South Dakota Stockgrowers Association and South Dakota Sheep Growers Association established the South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund to provide support and relief assistance to those impacted.

To donate to the Rancher Relief Fund, visit and search “Rancher Relief Fund.” Donors can also mail checks to Black Hills Community Area Foundation/SD Rancher Relief Fund made out to the “Rancher Relief Fund.” Address: PO Box 231, Rapid City, SD, 57709. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor

Photo caption: Almost 60 head of cows and calves, most being cows, were found between the top of this hill and the horse trailer seen in the background. The cattle drifted several miles to this location during the Atlas Blizzard. Most producers in the area had not weaned prior to the storm, and the many calves that were weaned as a result of losing their mothers during the storm are a top concern moving forward into another wet weekend. Photo by Heather (Hamilton) Maude.