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South Dakota Blizzard Devastates Ranchers' Lifetime Work

"It's like your lifetime work is gone," Author of Meadowlark Dawn Wink said.

Wink's family of ranchers was among those impacted by the October blizzard in South Dakota that killed a majority of the area's cattle.

Oct. 3 to Oct. 5, 2013, an unseasonably early blizzard slammed portions of South Dakota with some parts of the state receiving up to 48 inches of snow.

Blizzard conditions, including blinding snowfall and high winds, settled mainly around the Black Hills of South Dakota dumping almost four feet of snow on some area farms.

The combination of weather conditions and the early timing of the storm left ranchers unprepared and as a result the state's largest industry has been fundamentally destroyed.

"Tens of thousands of animals have died," Executive Director of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association Jodie Foster said. "Essentially half the state has been impacted by the storm."

South Dakota previously had the nation's sixth largest cattle herd, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The sheer number of deceased cattle has not yet been reported as the state is still dealing with clean-up efforts.

The gravity of the situation is severe as the South Dakota economy is sure to take a hit alongside of the state's ranchers. Most ranchers wait all year for the single paycheck associated with the sale of their animals and this year that check will not be coming.

A Lifetime of Work Vanished

"When you ranch, that is your entire livelihood," Wink said. "People are in shock right now."

Unlike other industries, those in the ranching industry develop their herds for years on end, breeding genetically in accordance to market needs.

"Each rancher's herd is as individual as a fingerprint," Wink said in her online blog. "It's not as easy as going to buy another one and replacing them."

Aside from the genealogy of a rancher's herd, ranchers spend their lives around their animals from birthing day to selling day. Due to the proportions of the losses that have taken place, the storm has taken an emotion toll of those affected.

"Ranchers and the well-being of their animals are inextricably linked. If you didn't love them, you wouldn't do it," Wink said.

With carcasses of cattle still spread across the land, clean-up efforts will have begun as the land becomes drier everyday, allowing ranchers to drive out and retrieve their dead.

Even after clean-up, however, ranchers will not be in a better position.

Typically, ranchers take out a loan and borrow from the bank to start their career or to carry them through the year until the sale of their herd. Due to the storm, ranchers will be unable to sell this year and as a result will be incapable of paying back their debts.

"This will put a lot of people out of business. It will be detrimental to young ranchers and ranchers who have ranched for their whole lives," Wink said. "Their herds are gone, everything is gone."

A Community Unprepared

Due to the prematurity of the blizzard, not only were South Dakota residents unprepared, but the cattle were as well.

"This was an exceptionally early blizzard," Foster said. "A lot of cattle did not have their winter coats yet."

Cattle usually grow more hair in late autumn to keep them warm during the winter months. Due to the timing of the blizzard and the fact that the blizzard was followed by periods of heavy rain, the area's cattle endured extremely low temperatures and then were soaked by the rain.

These conditions made it extremely difficult for the cattle to keep their internal body temperatures in check, so many died from hypothermia.

In addition, many cattle followed the high winds that accompanied the storm.

"Cattle tend to drift with the wind. Some stumbled off into stock dams, drown, walked into holes and died from their injuries," Foster said. "Or they were covered with snow and suffocated."

The timing of the snow also meant that cattle had yet to be moved from their summer pastures to their winter pastures, which would have happened in the next few weeks. Summer pastures are generally more open, whereas the winter pastures would have provided more overhead protection from the wind, snow and cold temperatures.

Another Economic Blow

Aside from the ranchers, who depend on their yearly salary from the sale of their herd, the devastation reaped by the storm has the potential to cause a ripple effect throughout the economy.

"The market was looking good for animals this year," said Foster. "In today's market a South Dakota breed animal, brings in 1,500 to 2,000 dollars."

The areas hit by the storm were mostly ranching lands. Ranching in these areas supports the entire surrounding community.

"It will impact the broader community because most towns in South Dakota are supported by family ranchers," Foster said. "They lost this year's calve crop and next years."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, agriculture is South Dakota's number one industry with an economic impact of 20.7 billion dollars. The state has approximately five beef cattle for every state resident.

As the South Dakotan land continues to dry from the storm, the retrieval of dead cattle will persist and only then can the impact on the nation's economy be calculated.

The Road to Recovery

In just three days, the October blizzard caused enough devastation that it will require years of recovery.

"It is definitely going to be years of recovery, no doubt," said Foster.

To date, clean-up efforts have recently begun. Ranchers are dealt with the task of disposing of their dead and keeping record of the deceased.

Livestock pits opened on Monday, Oct. 14, 2013 for the deceased cattle.

Since the re-opening of the government after the shutdown, government officials are working to expedite the passage of the Livestock Indemnity Program, commonly referred to as LIP.

The budget for LIP was a part of a 2008 farm bill that expired on Oct. 1, 2013.

Simply put, LIP would assist producers in times of natural disaster such as the October blizzard. It would make ranchers eligible for their monetary loss either by 65 percent of fair market value or 75 percent, depending upon which version of the program passes.

Currently, the House of Representatives and the Senate have appointed conferees, but the group has yet to meet and work out the details.

Without a federal insurance program, many ranchers have received no assistance in regards to their monetary loses. However, a few relief programs have been established to aid the ranchers.

On Oct. 8, 2013 the Rancher Relief Fund was set up by the Black Hills Area Community Foundation in collaboration with the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, South Dakota Cattlemen's Assocation and the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association. The fund will provide relief assistance to those impacted in the agricultural industry.

Other relief funds have been founded by concerned community members such as New Mexican resident and Freelance Graphic Artist Rebecca Farr.

Friend of the Wink ranching family, Farr designed a t-shirt to support those ranchers affected by the blizzard. The shirts went on sale last Tuesday and as of last Friday had raised more than 1000 dollars.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kristen Rodman at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com, follow her on Twitter @Accu_Kristen or Google+. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook and Google+.