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.
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.