I know a lot of you that read my blog don’t come from an agricultural background to understand that magnitude of the storm and loss in South Dakota. For those of you that have not heard about it, unfortunately the media hasn’t given it a lot of exposure, there was a blizzard that unexpectedly hit South Dakota the 3rd-5th of October. I’ve read a lot of articles about the storm and its devastation and my heart breaks every time. I’ve heard it’s predicted from 20,000 – 75,000 head of cattle have been lost and anywhere from 5%-20% of the cattle in the state.
Let me start from the beginning to give you some background.
Beef cattle spends its time out to pasture (grassy fields), even in winter storms. A rancher will have acres and acres of pasture for the cattle to graze – typically a summer pasture and a winter pasture. The winter pasture will be closer to their farmstead and normally has a shelter, natural or man-made. The summer pasture can be miles and miles away as they just let the cattle graze and “beef up”. Because the Midwest doesn’t normally see winter storms, especially blizzards, in early October, most ranchers had their cattle in a summer pasture, far away.
Some people have questioned “Why, when there was talk of a winter storm, did they not move the cattle or bring them indoors?” The first thing to know is the sheer amount of cattle in South Dakota. It’s said there are 5 animals per person on average in SD and per Wikipedia (US Census Bureau is down with the shutdown) there are 833,354 people in the state. Rough math skills would make that over 4 million head of cattle. And, with only 15,000 cattle producers, that’s about 266 head of cattle per rancher as a general idea for you. The logistics to get that many animals moved in a very short amount of time is very difficult. And, how would you fit 266 head of cattle into a barn? And, would the barn be able to withstand the storm? What happens if the animals get scared and stampede in a small enclosed space?
Also, the storm was predicted to be 10″ – 24″. Cattle have a chance withstand that. However, that’s not all the storm delivered. Instead they got 12 hours of rain and hurricane force winds, to make the animals super wet and cold. Then the temperatures dropped even more and produced 48 hours of snow with continual winds up to 60 mph. Anyone that has lived in a place that gets snow knows that even if it’s 6″ of snow, but with strong winds, it’s terrible conditions. Well, they got averages of 30″ of snow and up to almost 5′ in some areas. And, this is without the cattle’s winter hair, since it’s only early October.
Are you getting an idea of the devastation?
In addition the loss of animals, the other things to wrap your head around are the emotional and financial loss to the ranchers. The thing most people don’t understand is that it’s your business in addition to your livelihood. Generations are spent working on the genetics of the cattle to get them to the quality they want. (Unless you’ve worked in the genetics or agriculture industry I don’t think you can fathom the time and money that is spent to grow your herd through genetics.) You work from sun up to sun down to make your cattle the best they can be and to work on your ranch or farm. It’s difficult to think about anything besides your cattle.
Also, a lot of the cattle that were lost were to be sold in the coming weeks/months. Typically in that area a calf is born in the spring, eats its way through summer, and is sold in the fall to feed yards. A calf would normally sell for $1,000, while a mature cow would bring $1,500 or more. Not only did they lose those calves, but also any of the cows that were pregnant with the calves for next year. Could you imagine getting out after the storm to see your cattle dead and scattered throughout the pastures, knowing that you just lost your livelihood and something your family has probably been working at generations to create? This is why it’s heartbreaking to me.
Another unfortunate part to point out is what the ranchers are able to do to regain their financial losses. Many don’t have insurance on their herds because of the sheer amount it costs to insure them. They used to have a government disaster program to kick in when these issues arise, but that program has expired. This would require congress to pass a new farm bill, which unfortunately is probably not at the top of their list right now.
My heart breaks for South Dakota. Let’s pray the numbers won’t be as high as predicted.