Ranchers in South Dakota fear they may lose everything after a freak storm dumped up four feet of snow in parts of the state last week, killing as many as 100,000 cattle.
Matt Kammerer, a 45-year-old rancher whose family has operated in South Dakota’s Meade County since 1882, told FoxNews.com that he lost 60 cattle in the storm, or one-third of his entire herd.
“You’re talking about $120,000 of assets that are just gone,” Kammerer said Friday by phone. “And we still owe the banks, too. It’s like driving a brand-new pickup off a cliff and still having to make payments.”
Kammerer painted a gruesome scene north of Rapid City, where a record 23 inches of snow fell.
“It’s just unreal,” he said. “There are cattle that are 8 or 9 miles away from the pasture they were in, just lying dead. And within that whole stretch, it’s just dead cow after dead cow, where they’ve gotten caught in dams, streams, fences, you name it. They’re dead everywhere.”
Carcasses of mature cows as well as calves were floating downstream local waterways in droves, Kammerer said, stoking fears of a potential outbreak of disease.
“If you don’t get those picked up and buried, you’re looking at the possibility of disease or possibly contamination,” he said. “You’ve got to get them all picked up.”
Most ranchers in the state lost anywhere between 50 to 75 percent of their herds, according to Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, which represents 1,500 ranching operations.
“We’re certainly looking at tens of thousands if not pushing 100,000 at this point,” she said of the dead livestock.
Aside from the economic losses, which will be severe once finally tallied, the unprecedented storm has left an “incredible emotional burden” on the state’s ranchers, Christen said.
“They know how dependent these livestock are on them and they’re absolutely emotionally devastated at the losses they’re seeing,” she said. “It’s been extremely difficult.”
In the days since the storm, Christen said ranchers are now focusing on providing medical care to the animals that did survive.
“That really has to be the priority before we start counting loss,” she said. “They need to make sure they’re safe and that they stay healthy now.”
Complicating matters is this weekend’s forecast, which calls for heavy rain and strong winds just a week after the early fall blizzard. Crews in South Dakota and North Dakota are also still working to restore power to thousands of customers left in the dark.
The storm also killed a man in the Lead-Deadwood area of South Dakota and damaged numerous buildings, causing at least one to collapse from the weight of snow and relentless winds.
South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard and U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., flew over the affected areas during an aerial assessment Thursday afternoon. The state’s congressional delegation has also vowed to push ahead for quick passage of the stalled farm bill to provide immediate financial relief to ranchers.
“We need to be doing everything we can to help the livestock producers whose livelihoods have been endangered by this storm,” Thune said in a statement. “Last weekend’s devastating storm is another example of why we need to complete work on the Farm Bill for our farmers and ranchers.”
Christen said passage of the legislation is critical for the region.
“It’s a disaster situation here, like a hurricane in other parts of the country,” she said. “We’re not looking for a handout or any kind of special subsidy, however, we’ve had a devastating loss to our industry. It’s critical to our economy in South Dakota and frankly the entire agriculture industry that we pass that. These cows feed a lot of this country.”
Gary Cammack, a 60-year-old rancher near Union Center in Meade County, said he lost about 15 percent of his herd, including 70 cows and some calves, which normally sell for $1,000. A mature cow usually brings in $1,500 or more, he said.
"It's bad. It's really bad. I'm the eternal optimist and this is really bad," Cammack told The Associated Press. "The livestock loss is just catastrophic ... It's pretty unbelievable."
Livestock were initially soaked by 12 hours of rain before 48 consecutive hours or snow and winds up to 60 mph, Cammack said.
"It's the worst early season snowstorm I've seen in my lifetime," he continued.
Kammerer said his ranch will be able to recover, but he’s more worried about his fellow cattlemen.
“We just had one of the worst droughts ever and now we take a hit like this,” Kammerer said, his voice cracking with emotion. “It’s just catastrophic. I’m going to be fine; it’s my counterparts … it’s my neighbors, my friends, the people you can’t even look in the face to tell them that you’re sorry.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.