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Blizzard's bite tough on livestock industry, sheep growers president says

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By Dave Bergmeier

The president of the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association feels the pain of his many agricultural friends hit hard by an early October blizzard.

Max Matthews, who lives in rural Bison, S.D., said thankfully the losses in the sheep industry will not be as large, but in a rural state everyone feels the hurt when Mother Nature deals a blizzard like the one that occurred Oct. 4 to 7. Agriculture is South Dakota’s No. 1 industry. Western South Dakota was the hardest hit region of a storm that stretched from western Nebraska into western North Dakota.

Sheep production is an important industry to South Dakota as it ranks fifth in the nation in lamb production. Much of what is raised in western South Dakota is ideal for wool production. Lamb production in eastern South Dakota is geared more toward meat production.

He also raises cattle and Matthews reported he did not have any losses in his operation.

“Over the years a sheep man has lost a lot to blizzards, but for most of the sheep people this will not put them out of business,” he said. “The sheep out here (in the Bison region) are built for the large ranges.”

Rambouillets are the predominant breed, he said, known for their fine wool and heartiness and adaptability to range and they have instincts to naturally flock together, which can minimize losses.

He said a very preliminary estimate was 3,000 to 4,000 sheep may have died in the storm, which Matthews said was fortunate.

“We have had worse losses before,” Matthews said. “The cattle folks had it way worse. They had cattle that drifted into creeks and dams and the cattle drowned. That was rough news to receive in the days that followed the storm.”

At his farm near Bison, the storm started with rain on Oct. 3 and then snow began to fall on the morning of Oct. 4. The winds picked up and combined with the snowfall caused heaving drifting. About 24 to 30 inches of snow fell in the Bison region. Winds around his house reached 50 to 55 miles per hour. South of where he lived gusts of 70 miles per hour were commonly reported. Higher snow fall totals and higher wind speeds made it even worse in the region farther south in the western part of the state.

Bison is about 150 miles north of Rapid City, which was one of the hardest-hit regions.

“That was where most of the problems and the biggest losses occurred,” he said.

Bad timing

The cold weather extremes hit the cattle at the wrong time. Many producers were still in their late summer and early fall pasture programs, Matthews said. The weather had been fairly mild throughout the region. Generally, in the case of cattle, ranchers start to move their herds into winter pastures in mid- to late-October. Winter pastures are more confined and easier for ranchers to round up when bad storms are forecast.

Cattle in the summer pastures had not had an opportunity to toughen their hides for the upcoming winter as a general rule, he said.

“It was the cold that killed a lot of cattle,” Matthews said. “Their bodies were not ready yet.”

Hypothermia set in, he said, which was different from sheep.

“The sheep did not get hypothermia,” he said. “The casualties for sheep were not as great.”

Reports have indicated snow did cover some sheep and caused deaths, he said.

With the expected forecast he and several neighbors were able to get their livestock closer so they would not be hit as hard.

“I’m glad we did,” he said.

Some producers thought their livestock could withstand the storm because of the mild days leading up to the storm, Matthews said. In hindsight he knows those producers regret it, but it was part of a general belief based on historical records that it was too early in the season for such a blast of winter. He says he and his neighbors were more fortunate because of the logistics of his operation allowed them to move their livestock before the storm hit.

Another fortunate part for Matthews and his neighbors was that the farther north a producer was located he more likely he experienced fewer losses. The storm’s impact hit harder on the ranches because in that region was more tied to cattle production, Matthews said, than sheep production.

If the storm had centered on Harding County in northwest South Dakota the sheep losses could have been much higher, the association president said. Because of the course of the storm it also avoided sheep industry hubs in eastern South Dakota.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said. “It was very much unexpected into early October.”

Matthews termed the early October blizzard as an “unfortunate perfect storm.”

Relief fund

The South Dakota Sheep Growers Association, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, have joined forces to establish a Ranchers Relief Fund.

Donors can send checks to Black Hills Community Area Foundation/SD Rancher Relief Fund and they should be made out to the “Rancher Relief Fund.” Checks can be mailed to P.O. Box 231, Rapid City, SD 57709.

They may also go online to donate to the Rancher Relief Fund. To do so, go to www.giveblackhills.org and search “Rancher Relief Fund.”

The fund is administered by the three associations and proceeds will be donated to livestock producers. Out of state donations will be accepted as well.

Matthews said he was proud of associations for pulling together and working with the Black Hills Community Area Foundation. All proceeds will be made available to producers who will need the help.

Media outlets and websites have been promoting the relief fund and keeping people informed about the storm’s aftermath. Matthews is comforted by the number of people who have inquired about contributing to the relief fund and offering assistance. Sheep producers from as far away as British Columbia to California have made inquiries, he said. Through trade associations and other organizations, sheep producers develop long-time friendships.

With the end of the federal government shutdown and the reopening of Farm Service Agency offices, producers will be able to begin important paperwork processes, Matthews said, and once a farm bill is approved his hope was that impacted producers will get help.

“Hopefully there will be a farm bill soon,” Matthews said.

Producers should keep the lines of communication open, document their losses in detail and report them, he said.

One thing Matthews knows is that the devastation from the storm will linger.

“There are people who will need help, in some cases that help will need to be later because right now a lot of them are still in the shock stage,” Matthews said. “For some of them that help will need to be later in the year and for others it could be into even late winter and spring. We want to be able to help them.”

Dave Bergmeier can reached by phone at 620-227-1822 or by email at dbergmeier@hpj.com.

Date: 10/28/2013



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