Ecocentric

Freak Blizzard Kills Tens of Thousands of South Dakota Cattle—and Washington Does Nothing

An unexpectedly early winter storm buried cattle ranchers in South Dakota. They're trying to rebuild, but the shutdown in DC and the lack of a farm bill holds them back.

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Kristina Barker / Rapid City Journal / AP

A dead cow lies in the snow along Highway 34 east of Sturgis, S.D. on Oct. 7, 2013.

There may be no occupation more subject to the whims of nature than that of rancher. Drought can dry your fields, leaving your cattle sick and starving while raising the cost of supplemental feed, but too much rain can cause dangerous floods. Disease can thin your herd, turning healthy cattle half-dead in a matter of days. When your business is living animals, there’s no shortage of ways things can go very wrong.

Nonetheless, what has happened to the ranchers of South Dakota this month goes beyond the bad luck ranchers know might always be in the cards. A massive and unexpectedly early blizzard rocked western South Dakota from Oct. 3 to 5, pummeling parts of the state with up to 4 ft. of snow. Ranching is one of the biggest industries in South Dakota, home to some 15,000 beef farms and 3.85 million head of cattle, and the cattle were not ready for the early storm. Beef cows and calves—which hadn’t yet developed the heavy coats that see them through the cold winters of the northern Plains—were soaked first by  freezing rain and then buried in the snow. Tens of thousands of cattle suffocated or froze to death. Days later, the bodies of dead cattle are still being buried or burnt. The South Dakota Stock Growers Association estimated that 15 to 20% of all cattle were killed in parts of the state, with some ranchers losing more than half of their herds. “Families are traumatized,” Sylvia Christen, the executive director of the group, told Reuters. “These animals depended on them, and they couldn’t help.”

And thanks to the ongoing government shutdown, the ranchers haven’t gotten much help either.

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Ranchers who called up the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) looking for assistance in documenting their losses—important if they want to get compensation later—would have gotten this message: “Hello, you’ve reached the USDA service center. Due to a lapse in current federal government funding, all employees aren’t available until further notice. Thank you.”

And even if the USDA workers hadn’t been furloughed because of the shutdown, they would have been hamstrung. That’s because Congress has yet to pass a new farm bill, which subsidizes agricultural producers, including ranchers. (Negotiations over the bill have been stuck largely because House Republicans want deep cuts in the federal food stamp program—traditionally part of the farm bill—over the objections of Democrats.) With each lost calf costing ranchers $800 to $900, and each cow valued at $1,800—not to mention the unborn calves who would have swelled herds come spring—South Dakota officials estimate that the total losses could be in the tens of millions of dollars. Worse, most ranchers lack private insurance for covering storm-related damage—or their insurance doesn’t cover death from suffocation—which will make it that much more difficult to recover from the catastrophe. The best ranchers can do is take picture of their dead animals and gather as much documentation as possible, in the hopes that relief payments will eventually become available.

The burden isn’t just financial—ranchers spend decades building up bloodlines in their herds, and the storm has wiped away that work. Cattlemen in neighboring states like Montana have pledged cows to help replenish the lost South Dakota herds, but it will take time to recover. South Dakota’s ranchers will pull through—they’re accustomed to the capriciousness of nature. But when Washington finally gets back on the job, they could use a little help.

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12 comments
tina.april88
tina.april88

I do live in South Dakota..i have cattle and my family has cattle...we suffered loss too due to this storm  not as much as many other people but still enough....the people who are asking for help need it...this is there life their job and they care for the animals that died like they are their children... people say that this is animal cruelty if that is your opinion thats fine you have a right to think whatever but i can guarnteen you have not been outside in a blizzard bedding down baby calves at 3 in the morning and packing them to the barn in mud up to your knees, or bringing a baby calf into your home and putting it in the bath tub so it can get warmed up. or probably have never had a bottle calf that you had to feed everyday, that you get to name and it follows you around everywhere. or havnt been out to cake the cows and they eat out of your hand, and it makes your heart happy to be out in the middle of nowhere feeding your cattle...a ranchers herd is his pride and joy...and speaking of pride most of these ranchers did not ask for help, because they have more pride than that...so i guess what i dont understand is these ranchers in south dakota are asking for assistance not a lot just a little....during hurricane katrina people got help down there, from the tornados in oklahoma people also got help there so why? if these ranchers are asking why is it so bad...most of these people have not asked for anything except for the farm bill which i personally think they should get....they are the people that feed the people on food stamps...they are the hard workers....these are the people working there asses off so the USA can eat...they are not the ones sitting around waiting for the next hand out....think of it like this if you got fired or quit a job you get unemployment right?  then go and find a new job in the classifieds.... these people who lost their whole herd (some people 300+ cattle) cant just go back out and look in the classifieds to get a new job...their herd was for paying for debt which comes along with ranching, so city people could run to the supermarket to get beef. most of these people have had a ranch and these same cattle bloodlines in there familys for 100+ years.  and if we profit from animal suffering if you drink milk that comes from cows, if you eat eggs those come from chickens, cheese thats cattle too so before you say we profit from animal suffering you better check out what you eat because you might be profiting from animal suffering too 

griba
griba

Interesting--- the farm bill is stalled because Dems won't cut food stamps (money for poor city people mostly) but the farm bill is meant by the Repubs to "subsidize" (give free money to) farmers. There is less and less difference these days to how much money politicians want to give people, the only difference is to whom each party wants to give money.

RoyShastid
RoyShastid

   They profit from animal suffering, I have no sympathy.

mirrordaemon
mirrordaemon

I can't believe the insurance companies would play semantics like that. Wait no their soulless money spawning entities from the dimension of the mind, that's right.


djmeyer85
djmeyer85

I live in South Dakota and even I think it's ridiculous that we're asking the feds for help. Farmers are offered insurance for such occasions, plus our representatives (we're a largely Republican state) are asking the federal government to stay out of our business so this would apply to that as well.

TheDannerDaliel
TheDannerDaliel

Damn those republicans!!!  If the government wasn't shut down they totally could have stopped that blizzard......

dellflorida
dellflorida

You know what? It is a South Dakota problem. Unless it crosses state line-the rest of the nation should not be involved.

South Dakota should have a disaster fund to handel diastaers within their state and not be running all th etime to

plead for funds from the federal government-in other words ,Us the taxpayers.

Handle events within your state and we the taxpayers will help on the few occasion when there is a real

catastrophe. Otherwise you are on your own... 

eagle11772
eagle11772

So the government, i.e. the taxpayers, are supposed to always pay people who suffer natural disasters and other calamities ?  No way.  I disagree.  that is NOT the job of government.  At least, it shouldn't be.  As an animal-rights activist, I'm sorry the cows died.  But bad things happen.

JDMannix
JDMannix

 @RoyShastid you do know that cattle prices fluctuate constantly right....making it hard for ranchers to make a profit. stick to what you know you fairy fuck

analthrasher69
analthrasher69

@RoyShastid youre an idiot, it's not like they asked for the freak blizzard to happen and kill thier cattle. if you were selling pillows and your house caught fire and your insurance didnt cover it, i would have no sympathy because uou profit from the suffering of cotton plants picked to make your pillows.

Gretch
Gretch

@djmeyer85 Farmers are NOT offered insurance for freak storms that are called in honest to goodness insurance lingo "Acts of God".  If you live here, you should brush up before piping up.

somebody23
somebody23

@dellflorida

YAY! Some one that knows what they are talking about! When hurricanes or tornadoes do massive damage to those states in their paths, I don't see those victims begging for help! They just put on their work boots and get busy putting their lives back together! AS THEY SHOULD! Don't ask for handouts. Just deal with it on your own! This storm named Atlas hit Montana, North Dakota, and Wyoming and put HUNDREDS of people without power for days and days... Not one peep out of them though... so weird.