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Early South Dakota Blizzard Leaves Thousands Of Cattle Dead

Ready or not, winter is here for some parts of the country. Over the weekend, we received some heavy rainfall and cooler temperatures at our home in eastern South Dakota, but our counterparts to the west were hit hard by a blizzard that is being called one of the worst in South Dakota’s history. With more than 2 ft. of snow in some areas, and 60-mph hour wind gusts, there was no way to prepare for this early bout of winter.

As plows continue to dig out cities and rural areas, reports are beginning to come in from ranchers struggling through heavy snow to evaluate the damage. It’s been estimated that 5-10% of cattle in western South Dakota have been killed by the storm, although some are reporting losses as high as a devastating 20%.

A ranching friend of mine out of Union Center, SD, wrote a real-life testimony about the storm and how it impacted her ranch on her Facebook profile.

She said, “Discouraging day. Cows are smart and know the draws to hunker down in, in just about any direction the storm comes from. But when the storm fills your hiding place, you must leave or get buried. Many cows did not leave and did not survive. The cows that left got stuck in drifts and had the same fate.”

She says cows driven by the winds crossed into adjoining properties. The cows clustered around her house are from five different owners. “The cows and calves are disoriented and difficult to pair up,” she reports.

“The first thing we did the morning after the storm was put hay out for the sheep, and dig out the opening of the barn to let the sheep out. They did not want to leave. It was dark in the barn, and their eyes were not accustomed to the light, so it was a slow process.

“After that, we spent day two looking for cows. The four-wheeler is helpless; the snow is deep and wet. We had to walk or drive the tractor in search for the cattle. Cows are off and cannot find where to cross the creek or even how to get around the deepest part of the snow bank. The dogs and I bunch them. When I step through the snow, it is water and under the water, it is green grass. When the tractor moved the snow, it had a hint of blue.

“Our losses are better than some but painful. I am sure this will give me bad dreams in the future.”

I visited with South Dakota Department of Agriculture’s Sarah Caslin, who didn’t have accurate estimates of total death loss at press time. But she did have a few pieces of information she wanted to pass along to ranchers.


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First off, she said anyone suffering livestock losses keep good records. “Take photos and get third-party verification when feasible. With the federal government shutdown, we aren’t sure yet who to report these losses to, but it will be helpful to have the information once a reporting location is identified. Additionally, we also suggest contacting the South Dakota Animal Industry Board at 605-773-3321 for information about carcass disposal and contact information for rendering plants.”

My heart aches for my ranching friends and fellow South Dakotans who are suffering the worst of this storm. I know the pains of trying to care for livestock through a blizzard. We’ve been snowed in for 11 days without electricity before, and it was a challenge to keep waterers from freezing up, keep tractors running, and keep spirits high as we battled the elements to fight for our cattle and their safety.

I will continue to post updates on the storm as I receive them and add them to this blog, so keep checking back for more information. If you would like to report cattle loss or personal testimonies from this storm, please comment below or email me at [email protected] Prayers and words of encouragement for our ranchers would also be appreciated. Leave those in the comments section below as well.

Edited to add:

There is a Facebook page offering updates on the blizzard, now being called Atlas, that is sharing photos, stories and even an auction to support the ranchers impacted. 

One rancher reported a loss of 347 of 400 weaned calves. Another rancher has only been able to locate 23 of 900 head of cattle. One rancher from Faith, SD, reported a loss of 71 cows and 115 calves. More numbers will be added as we receive reports.

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TAGS: Ranching
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