Mother Nature's calling card puts hit into livestock country
By Dave Bergmeier
Mother Nature left western South Dakota residents with an early winter calling card and livestock losses are going to spiral in the days ahead.
Heavy snow dumped 4 feet of snow near Deadwood, S.D., and 3.5 feet near Lead, S.D., on Oct. 4 to 5, according to The Associated Press. Tens of thousands of people were without power for several days. Reports of 20 or more inches of snow were common throughout the Black Hills and the 21.6 inches in Rapid City were a record for both a 24-hour period in October and the entire month, the AP reported. It also had an impact on western Nebraska and eastern Wyoming.
The storm impacted the entire western half of South Dakota, according to Jodie Hickman Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, Pierre, S.D.
“I have heard anything from a few head to a few hundred head on individual operations,” Anderson said.
The financial impact from the storm will take time to assess but experts know it will be defined in many millions of dollars.
For cattle producers, cattle wandered as the blizzard conditions quickly struck, she said.
“Cattle drifted with the wind and according to reports I’ve heard many are being found miles from where they started,” Anderson said. “Today (Oct. 7) the biggest challenge is finding cattle, whether dead or alive. Moving forward, snow melt and mud will further impede progress as we’re getting into the fall shipping period; not to mention the miles of fence that will likely need to be rebuilt.”
Where Mother Nature packed her wallop, the region is known for its cow-calf production to go along with vast open spaces, she said. Many producers still had their cattle on “summer” pasture, which is termed that way because it doesn’t provide suitable cover for running cattle in inclement weather conditions, the association’s executive director said.
“In a typical year, cattle will be relocated to ‘winter’ pasture in late October,” she said.
Most of the calves in western South Dakota are born in the spring.
Cattle production and ranching are important to the state’s economy, as agriculture is the state’s top industry—generating nearly $21 billion in annual economic activity and employing 122,000 South Dakotans. In 2011, the state was ranked eighth in the nation in the number of cattle and calves.
“This early season, record-setting blizzard is devastating to our producers and our thoughts are with them,” according to state Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch in a news release. “We are working to coordinate with ag industry stakeholders to establish and execute a response plan.”
David Uhrig, who ranches in rural Hermosa, S.D., near the Black Hills, said could only give very preliminary findings, but said his operation could have a 25 percent herd loss. More will be known in about a week.
“We weaned our calves in early September and we did not lose any weaned calves or horses,” he said.
But with the deaths of pregnant cows and that adds to the pain he feels. Any death of a cow is tough, he said, and the storm provided multiple days and nights of little sleep. On Oct. 1. He had heard reports in his area of 2 inches of rain followed by an estimate of 31 inches of snow with 70 miles per hour winds.
“It was pretty devastating,” Uhrig said about the storm. “The old adage is there is always someone worse off I know applies.”
He knows of a neighbor who maybe looking at 50 percent loss in his herd.
From a historical perspective, he knows of a South Dakotan who is 106 and said he knew of a storm of similar magnitude in the early part of the 20th century. His grandfather, who is his mid 80s, could recall several bad winter storms in Nebraska.
“You know it is bad when a couple of the old-timers have never seen anything like it,” Uhrig said.
Warmer weather for several days will help in the process of rebuilding, he said, and he was thankful power was restored on Oct. 8.
From ‘bazaar to bizzare’
Glenda Mostek, communications and marketing director for Colorado Wheat, had traveled to the ranch of her parents, Darrel and Mavis Peterson, in rural Hermosa, S.D., to attend an annual community festival when Mother Nature had other ideas.
An annual community bazaar had been scheduled for Oct. 5. She can chuckle now in that the bazaar weekend was changed to a “bizarre” weekend snow event.
The heavy snow left her parents without power and telephone service for several days. Hermosa is about 15 miles south of Rapid City, and the Petersons live about 25 miles east of Hermosa.
“All of our cows seem to be present and accounted for,” Mostek said. “We had brought them to a windbreak on the south corner of our pasture early in the storm Friday. They left the first windbreak where they were at and drifted south against a fence. We believe we saved them by being able to check on them and move them at that point.”
Her parents have 80 pairs in their cow-calf operation, she said.
“We had neighbors that were not so fortunate,” Mostek said.
The Petersons were without electricity when the storm hit Oct. 4. A line was snapped by a tree limb between the electric cooperative’s pole and the family home. A telephone landline was reconnected late Monday afternoon.
A warmer forecast helped and once a driveway got plowed, it brought back a sense of normalcy.
South Dakotans learn at a young age about the power of Mother Nature, Mostek said. In the latest storm, it started with about 1.4 inches of rain.
“The combination of rain first, then driving wind, sleet and snow made it very difficult,” Mostek said. “We have certainly never lost tree branches like we did this time. They thundered down on our roof all Friday night.”
The storm was a reminder about what can happen in farm and ranch country. Her parents and neighbors are strong-willed, she said. Her father spent extended periods of time shoveling snow and her mom, who recently had knee surgery, cooked meals and kept the family’s spirits up.
“As my mom always says, ‘we will get through it,’” Mostek said. “My dad says we have had plenty of storms and some with even more snow, but this one caused drifts in places he hasn’t seen before.”
Her parents have a propane fueled stove, which cooked meals, provided heat and dried clothes that got wet from going outside and working.
“It makes you appreciate what you do have,” Mostek said. “We have dinner by candle light.”
The family listened to the radio, which was powered by batteries.
It was the latest reminder that rural Americans always need to be prepared, think and plan ahead for adverse weather, Mostek said. The Petersons also have a backup generate to make sure they had running water and to preserve food in their freezer.
Anderson is impressed by the people she works for and who she represents.
“Livestock producers are generally an independent group of folks and we take big risks all the time,” Anderson said. “I have no doubt this will set many in western South Dakota back both financially and mentally, but we’ve persevered in adverse conditions for many years and I know most will bounce back, probably with a contingency plan for the ‘next time.’”
Uhrig said he will continue to look to the future and that brighter days will return.
“You have to be optimistic,” he said. “You have to be optimistic in production agriculture. It is easier said than done.”
Producers need to document the losses they are finding, Anderson said.
“Because the Livestock Indemnity Program won’t be available until the farm bill is finalized, it’s unclear what potential disaster assistance might come,” she said.
The government shutdown probably is not as big of an issue as to the fact that there is no farm bill in general, which compounds the problem.
“Agencies we would normally look to for answers about disaster assistance and cost-share programs such as FSA (Farm Service Agency) and NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) are furloughed, but without a farm bill authorizing disaster programs, funds wouldn’t be immediately available even if the government was operating,” Anderson said.
The South Dakota Department of Agriculture says producers should document all livestock losses with pictures, vaccination and hauling receipts, or any other records for possible future use in disaster relief programs. Third-party verification of losses is recommended. Producers with questions should contact the South Dakota Brand Board at 605-773-3324. Producers can also contact their county emergency manager.
The storm will make some ranchers and producers rethink their marketing strategies, Anderson said, depending on the depth of their losses.
“I know there are also concerns about calf weights as this storm will certainly set back gains even for producers who didn’t have extensive losses,” she said.
For now, producers appreciate prayers, Anderson said, adding the recovery will take time.
“We’re working to identify a mechanism for donations as I’m sure there will be a need for financial assistance in many areas,” the executive director said.
The National Sunflower Association publication reported that the blizzard has impacted the sunflower harvest. In the Oct. 7 edition of Sunflower Highlights, it noted that one producer near Bison, S.D., had 1,500 acres of sunflowers he had prepared to cut when the blizzard hit on Oct. 4. The storm dropped 18 inches on his farm. The producer did not think there was a lot of damage, reporting that some heads were knocked down but most were standing. Because of muddy conditions he was unsure when he would be able to start his harvest. The producer said before the storm he thought his crop was above average.
Bison is about 150 miles northeast of Rapid City.
The state’s sheep industry is also likely to feel the pinch. The state is the fifth largest producer of lamb and wool in the U.S., according to the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association.
Dave Bergmeier can be reached by phone at 620-227-1822, or by email at email@example.com.