It’s hard to believe it’s been one year since the historic and devastating Atlas Blizzard struck the region surrounding western South Dakota. The unexpected, early season storm left in its wake more than $1.7 billion in damage, feet of snow and howling winds wiped out tens of thousands of livestock, and ranchers were left with entire herds to bury. The story failed to receive national headlines until well after the fact. Meanwhile, the farming and ranching community stepped up to make immediate contributions with feed, hay, and pledges of monetary and livestock donations. Social media was abuzz to raise awareness of the situation, even while the storm was still unleashing its wrath on the region.
Today, ranchers in the area are still coping with the losses which have been eased by the generosity and contributions from the agriculture community across the country. It’s still hard to believe the strength of the storm so early in the season, when no one expected such a storm to hit and while many cattle were still grazing on summer ranges. Today, we face the reality of predictions for yet another strong winter season ahead and hoping that another storm of such magnitude will not hit.
To read the reflections and appreciations for the gratitude in a letter from ranchers who survived the Atlas Blizzard, head over to my work blog and continue reading and see the photos documenting the progress.
Here are a few excerpts from my blog posts following the historic storm:
Amid all of the difficulties this much snow brings, shutting down I-90 and paralyzing towns, many ranchers took a direct blow from the storm. Estimates are that upwards of 70,000 cattle, horses, and livestock perished in the storm. That means many ranchers lost all of this year’s calf crop and a good majority of their cow herds. Many livestock were out on Summer and Fall ranges, sometimes miles from winter pastures where shelter is better suited for winter storms. Even horses and livestock in pens closer to the house perished in the feet of snow, strong winds, and cold that came this early in the season. Many cattle trailed with the wind and when they found shelter, many were buried when snow drifted and covered them. In most cases, there wasn’t much that could be done.
Now ranchers face the difficult task of documenting their losses and cleaning up the carcasses. The images, video, and stories coming out of the region are graphic. I’ve encountered many losses in ranching, having several cattle at once struck dead by lightning, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to see dead cattle and horses strung out for more than 100 miles. Devastating.
A few days ago, I wrote about the Atlas blizzard that struck South Dakota and surrounding states. That post has links to several news stories and perspectives from the agriculture community. This disaster still hasn’t received large national attention, though some media outlets have run stories.
Support for the ranchers has been flooding in from the agriculture community across the country. A Ranchers Relief Fund has been established to directly support those affected by the storm. Many state agricultural organizations have pledged support and groups like the AgChat Foundation have teamed up with the American Farm Bureau Federation and Tyson Foods to raise awareness on the campaign.
Three weeks after the Oct. 4 and 5 disaster, the economic impact on ranchers and their families – like the livestock death toll – remains a climbing estimate. Digging out from the two-day blizzard that wreaked havoc on much of western South Dakota and killed more than 25,000 head of cattle, sheep and horses will take much more than snow removal…
“Ranchers have some real financial struggles ahead of them – and it goes beyond the immediate loss of income from calves they no longer have to sell this fall,” Oedekoven said. A cattle producer himself, Oedekoven explained that most ranchers are part of a family business that is several generations old. With each cow killed in the storm, that rancher not only lost the calf that would have been born in the spring of 2014, the family lost future access to valuable genetics. Jim Krantz, SDSU Extension Cow/Calf Field Specialist agreed with Oedekoven, explaining further the long-term impact lost genetics will have on western South Dakota ranchers.
Among the South Dakota counties hardest hit by the Oct. 4-5 blizzard were the 12 counties comprising the Northwest and West Central agricultural reporting districts of Butte, Corson, Dewey, Harding, Perkins, Ziebach, Haakon, Jackson, Lawrence, Meade, Pennington and Stanley.
According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, these 12 counties had 769,000 head of cattle and calves as of Jan. 1, 2013. Of these, an estimated 456,000 head were beef mother cows on ranches. While final losses are still being tallied, South Dakota’s Animal Industry Board estimates up to 25,000 head may have perished in the storm. This implies upwards to 5 percent of the region’s cow herd could have been lost in the blizzard.
We never wish for such a devastating occurrence to happen to anyone, but it’s very encouraging to see the immediate and continued response from farmers and ranchers across the country. These folks live and breathe the true meaning of ‘community’ each and every day, despite what story headlines paint for the majority of our country.