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.
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.
The blinding snow and wind also caused hundreds of animals to walk off steep riverbanks and cliffs or wander into waterways and stock dams where they perished.
Harty adds that even animals put into buildings or protected areas didn’t necessarily survive because many buildings collapsed from heavy snow, or animals were buried alive in 6- to 10-foot snow drifts.
In the weeks following the storm, Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said ranch families were coping “as best they can and adjusting to a new normal.”
Surviving animals had to be found — many drifted as far as 20 miles away in the storm — and dead carcasses had to be identified, documented and removed for rendering or buried. Without a Farm Bill or Livestock Indemnity Program in place, producers were encouraged to get third-party verifications of their dead animals in order to retain the possibility of qualifying for federal aid if programs are reinstated in the future.
Six weeks after the storm, Larry Stomprud, a purebred Angus producer from Mud Butte, S.D., said, “I think we’re over the sleepless nights. The first couple of days were what I imagine soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder experience.”
Stomprud says his cattle that survived the storm are doing well, and he’s spending time catching up on fall work. Because of the losses to his herd, he says he’ll be down in numbers for spring calving. But he retained several replacement females and hopes to have herd numbers back up by next fall.
Of the storm’s after-effects, Stomprud has focused on looking forward and talking with other producers and the media — including an interview with the BBC about the blizzard’s impact. He says, “If you internalize it too much, it’s not good.”
For cattle that survived the storm, Harty and her SDSU Extension colleagues have been working with producers to ensure that nutrient requirements of calves and cows are being met.
“We want to make sure these animals’ immune systems can work and keep them healthy. Their nutrient requirements — especially for energy — are higher,” Harty says.
From a financial aspect, producers have also been encouraged to visit with their banker or loan officer to re-evaluate their finances in the aftermath of the storm. Due to the extensive livestock losses, Doug Theel, vice president of the Rapid City marketplace for Farm Credit Services of America, notes that ranchers’ income from calf sales will be reduced, which may create cash flow challenges to meet loan terms.
He says, “Every situation is going to be different because there are producers who may have only lost a few head to those who lost a large percentage of their herd.”
To alleviate some of the immediate financial stress, Theel explains that on land loans and term loans Farm Credit customers affected by the blizzard are being given the option to defer payments for 2013. Principal and interest payments can be considered for deferment or re-amortization options.
Theel says, “This is intended to give our clients time to assess their individual situation. Some may want to restructure things to make it work. We’ve had other clients who’ve said they may retire; some are considering leasing their land out. Others say rather than buying cows, they’ll restock by running yearlings.”
For cattlemen who did lose a high percentage of their herd but still have pasture and feed resources available, Harty says custom feeding could also be a viable option. “This may help with the financial and emotional strain because it gives ranchers their role of caring for livestock while also generating income,” she explains.
Theel adds, “Farm Credit Services of America is willing to come up with some creative ways to help keep ranchers in business, if that’s their choice. We have a lot of young producers affected. But we also have to do what makes sense. They can’t take on more debt than makes sense.”
Of the storm’s toll, he adds, “It’s tragic. People’s lifestyles and livelihoods have been affected.”
While no one can fully prepare for any disaster, SDSU Extension specialists say there are some management strategies that may help livestock — and producers — through the stress of a catastrophic event. They suggest livestock producers should always strive to keep livestock in good body condition, have adequate feed on hand and located relatively close to animals, and consider some type of emergency preparedness planning, including who should be contacted, which animals will be given priority and how/where to dispose of dead carcasses.
Having a plan to handle the emotional stress is also an important part of disaster preparedness. SDSU’s Harty says post-traumatic stress and dealing with the mental and emotional anguish that ranch families are experiencing are very real concerns right now in South Dakota. “I’m hearing from a lot of ranch wives that help is needed,” Harty says.
“Mental and emotional stress is not an easy thing to talk about, especially for ranch families who are accustomed to being independent,” she adds.
Mark Britzman, a professor in counseling and human resources at South Dakota State University, emphasizes that communication is integral to the recovery process after experiencing any hardship, including natural disasters such as snowstorms, tornadoes, floods or drought.
Britzman says, “Although these situations seem to be uncontrollable, it is important for families to recognize that they do have some control. To be able to handle these disasters, families need to work together to become a resilient family.”
He explains that resilient families acknowledge that change is a part of life and avoid seeing a crisis as impossible to overcome. “It is important for families to understand we cannot control everything in life, but we can learn to control how we react to challenges within our life,” he says.
Britzman says coping mechanisms include:
• Recognizing it’s normal to have negative emotions.
• Reminding yourself daily of the things for which you are grateful.
• Allowing for adequate rest and choosing healthy foods.
• Recalling other hardships you’ve overcome.
• Remaining focused on the positive.
• Helping others.
South Dakota Stockgrowers’ Christen says, “The grieving process catches people at different times. Counseling, fellowship and community support will be an important part of the healing process.”
Counseling resources available include a telephone helpline (reached by dialing 211 in the Black Hills or for those out of the region by calling 877-708-4357), and Lutheran or Catholic Social Services.
SDSU Extension is also planning several educational programs in December 2013 to provide ranch families with more information about dealing with herd health and nutrition, finances and emotional stress as they recover from the storm.
Author’s Note: A Rancher Relief Fund has been established by the Black Hills Area Community Foundation under the leadership of the South Dakota Stockgrowers, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association. Contributions can be made online at www.giveblackhills.org/27677, or mail a donation, payable to Rancher Relief Fund, to Black Hills Area Community Foundation, P.O. Box 231, Rapid City, SD 57709.