You may not have heard, in the midst of all the political theatrics, that there was a natural disaster of huge proportions last week. We often hear about natural disasters on the coasts at length both before and after they happen, but this event is just barely starting to pick up media attention. Over 48 hours, an early blizzard dropped 3-4+ feet of snow in the plains of South Dakota.
You probably think South Dakota is a northern, snowy state, right? What’s the big deal? Are there even people there? There are people there, and many of those people have cattle ranches. For those people, this storm has been completely devastating. The most recent estimate I saw was that 100,000 cattle were killed in this blizzard. Some ranchers I follow on twitter are guessing that number could double. Many ranchers lost 20%-50% of their herds, and there are unconfirmed reports of even higher percentage losses.
I’d like to put this in perspective for those of you who do not raise cattle. Cattle are built for the outdoors. Normally, they can handle winters, even in South Dakota. This storm came early though, and it caught these cattle unprepared. Each fall there comes a day – usually a very crisp morning – where we go out to feed calves and they’re “fuzzy”. It doesn’t really happen overnight (although sometimes it seems to), but cows’ and calves’ hair grows as temperature drops to prepare them to tolerate winter weather. Before this snowstorm, temperatures in the affected region were reaching into the 70s – the cattle weren’t ready.
The ranchers weren’t ready either. At our dairy, we take steps to protect our cattle in the winter – we use different bedding for calves, shut the doors on our barns, and we use a cold weather teat-dip to protect against frost-bite. Beef ranchers also take steps to protect their animals against their winter environment. For example, they might move their herds to more sheltered pastures where they’re easier to check on and have better protection from wind and snow. The pastures they use in the summer are generally more open, helping the cattle keep cool in summer’s heat.
The weather is a great uncertainty for all farmers and ranchers. No matter how many forecasts we check, we cannot prepare for everything. A storm of this magnitude is rare and unpredictable, especially this early in the season. I wrote a post late last winter about some of our heifers who got out and got lost in a snowstorm of a much smaller magnitude. Our heifers found a sheltered yard with hay bales to munch on that happened to belong to David’s parents, but in the blowing wind and confusing surroundings, they did wander over a mile a from home. It’s easy to see with the snowfall rates and high winds (up to 70 mph gusts) experienced in South Dakota how cattle could stray even farther from their familiar surroundings. This storm also brought extremely deep snow. I’ve never seen 4’ of snow, but I know about how high that is relative to a cow. I also know that our pastured cows take shelter in low spots, out of the wind, when a storm hits. Unfortunately, in this storm many low spots filled with drifting snow, literally burying the animals taking shelter there.
The losses are staggering. I cannot imagine the anguish of losing half of your herd, especially to something so sudden and uncontrollable. During the 2012 drought, we watched our crops wither as rain failed to fall, but over the last year much of that moisture has been recovered. The recovery of a cow herd will take much longer. This one event, 48 hours, took a larger toll for these ranchers larger than 3 months of extreme drought did for our dairy.
Two years ago we lost a perfectly healthy cow to a lightning strike during a thunderstorm. It’s the only loss of life I can recall that we could directly attribute to weather. I cannot fathom if that same storm had taken 10 animals. Or 20. Or 50. I wish that the ranchers in South Dakota didn’t have to.
Hopefully these folks had insurance, but these losses are hard to quantify financially. You can put a dollar value on a cow, but to value a herd is totally different. Herds have unique identities and characteristics that their owners become familiar with. Years of breeding and managing a herd shape it to fit its owners and environment. We like other cows, but we know and love our cows.
If you’d like to give a financial donation, a relief fund has been established, but all we’re asking is that you give a thought, a prayer, or whatever spiritually uplifting effort you can muster to those affected by this tragedy.
For more information on this tragedy, Ryan Goodman has a good link list in his post on the Agriculture Proud blog.