When an early season blizzard moved into the Black Hills region of South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska on Oct. 4 and 5, 2013, no one anticipated the havoc it would leave. With temperatures in the 70s just days prior to the storm, man and beast were gravely unprepared.
There have been approximately 18,000 reported cattle deaths in the aftermath of the Atlas blizzard in October. South Dakota officials estimate that total could climb to between 20,000 and 30,000 livestock. Hours of heavy rain, followed by 3 to 4 feet of snow and 60 mile-per-hour winds, created “perfect storm” conditions. When the snow and wind stopped, “war zone” were the words many used to describe the devastating scene of dead cattle carcasses that littered the landscape across hundreds of miles of western South Dakota.
As of mid-November, South Dakota state veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven had verified that 240 producers reported the deaths of 17,795 cattle, 1,305 sheep, 299 horses and 40 bison in the state as a result of the storm. However, Oedekoven anticipates that by the time all reports are turned in the total death loss will climb to between 20,000 to 30,000 livestock.
Many ranchers lost 10 to 50 percent of their herd — some as high as 75 to 90 percent. One South Dakota rancher, who did not want to be identified, said the storm set him back 10 years. Livestock industry leaders in the state are estimating the losses will have a multi-million- — if not billion- — dollar impact on the region’s economy.
Like a hurricane or tornado, the effects of this catastrophic weather event were largely unpreventable — with little that livestock producers could have done to save their animals.
“A lot of producers prepared as best they could. It was really a freak storm,” says Adele Harty, a cow-calf field specialist with South Dakota State University Extension who is based in Rapid City, S.D., where the heart of the storm hit.
Harty explains that livestock did not have their winter hair coat yet during this early season blizzard. As a result, she says, “They couldn’t keep their body temperature up. It was an energy issue.”
Reports from the state veterinarian’s office confirm that many of the animals died from the elements. “Those cows likely got hypothermic. They were cold,” Oedekoven told the press, explaining that the cardiovascular systems of the cattle were working overtime, causing hypertension or high blood pressure in their lungs. This caused pulmonary edema and basically caused those lungs to fill with water or fluid.