Grossly underreported by the national media, October’s Atlas Blizzard was a devastating storm to the ranchers of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. Native South Dakotan Amanda Radke looks at how nature, a government gridlock, and flawed public perception all combined at once to make the fall of 2013 a life-changing event for the ranchers involved.

Calving might be in full swing and spring round-up is just around the corner, but there’s something missing. During a time of year when a stockman’s heart is usually as light as a feather, there’s a hollow feeling inside the ranchers of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. As green grass begins to poke up through the winter thaw and cattle are gathered for branding, ranchers are looking over herds a fraction of the size they were just a few months ago.

Last fall, a blizzard of historic proportions hit the area, killing an estimated 75,000 head (or 10 percent) of the region’s cattle. The Atlas Blizzard, so massive meteorologists named it as they would a hurricane, was a terribly perfect combination of rain, wind, snow, and freezing temperatures followed by a government gridlock that resulted in a loss of livelihood that won’t be easily overcome.

With tens of thousands of cattle dead, fewer calves were sold to market in the fall of 2013, and the unborn calves those cows were carrying were lost. Calves sell for up to $1,000 per head, and mature commercial cows will cost $2,000–$2,500 per head to replace—up to $10,000 a head to replace high-quality purebred females lost in the storm. Decades of genetics on purebred operations have been destroyed, and a lifetime of hard work was wiped away for many, forcing older ranchers into retirement and nearly bankrupting young ranchers who were just getting into the business.

The economic effects of the storm are staggering: South Dakota State University is estimating a $1.7 billion impact on the area economy, adding up immediate dollars lost, recovery costs, and years of lost revenue.

Rancher Jeff Grill of Edgemont, S.D., wasn’t really worried when the weatherman forecasted a change in temperature in early October. His cow-calf pairs were enjoying an Indian summer spread out on the South Dakota prairie, and he was a few weeks from fall round-up and weaning time. Little did he know that the slight change in temperature the news warned him about would turn into one of the deadliest blizzards he would ever experience.

On Oct. 4, sheets of rain and sleet started pelting the Wyoming and South Dakota grasslands, followed by gusts of 70 mph winds. That evening, the weather went from bad to worse with an estimated 34 inches of heavy, wet snow hitting the area hard, coupled with freezing temperatures.

“It was like a white wall,” describes Grill. “As night fell, I could hear our cattle roaming back and forth. I tried to get out to feed them some hay to try to keep them close, but I couldn’t even find the cattle guard to get out of our yard. The snow was so thick, I couldn’t see a foot past my face.”

Grill made the tough decision to wait things out until morning light, when he could see, to feed his cattle.

“The next morning, I walked out of my house and immediately saw dead cattle right in the yard,” says Grill. “I had a sinking feeling in my stomach as I realized how bad things might be out there. It was difficult to get around, but we managed with horses and tractors.”

In what has been called, “the trail of death,” Grill recalls the horror of finding hundreds of his cattle lying dead:

“We kept finding piles of dead cows—some that piled up in fence lines and some that drowned in the wet rain and snow. Many mothers and babies were found lying dead together. I found long lines of cows that must have finally succumbed to the elements as they tried to move away from the storm. Trees were coming down everywhere. Weeds that had been in fence lines had torn clean holes through the fences. It was now an open range. We were finding cattle scattered as far as eight miles away.”

The deck was stacked against cattle in this fast-moving blizzard. The rain and sleet came down first, soaking the cattle. Then, the temperatures dropped and the wet cattle literally froze, some as they drifted with the blizzard, others directly to the ground. The ones that survived that obstacle might have found refuge in a low spot, under trees or behind a windbreak, only to be literally buried alive in snow. Ranchers found cattle that walked miles before hitting a fence, piling up and becoming snowed under. Others froze to death right in their winter lots. Without winter coats to protect them from the harsh storm, it didn’t matter if a rancher had tucked them into a feedlot close to home with a belly full of hay or if they were still out on summer grasses, the elements were too much to overcome for the cattle. 

To make matters worse, the electricity was out for eight days in the area and cell towers were down, as well. Communication was sparse in the first few days after the storm. The government shutdown that started Oct. 1 made things even more challenging; disaster assistance was nowhere in sight, and many ranchers who had loans with USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) weren’t able to visit with someone to tell them how to proceed in dealing with their dead cattle.

“Ranchers around here would never admit it because we are an independent group of folks, but it was extremely disheartening to know in a time of disaster, there was no help coming our way,” says Grill. “In fact, we are still waiting for help.”

A week later, Grill and his fellow ranchers received another tough blow.

“We had spent the week finding cattle scattered all over and trying to document the losses with a third party verification,” Grill says. “At that point, we were still finding dead cattle that had been buried in the snow. The snow was finally starting to melt when we received another 3.5 inches of rain. I have never seen flooding quite like this, and soon, dead cattle that hadn’t been found were being washed away in ditches and in creeks. There are still hundreds of cattle that were never accounted for, even now.”

Erica Koller-Ross, DVM, woke up the morning after the blizzard planning to go elk hunting.

“I didn’t realize how bad the storm really was at first,” admits Koller-Ross, who has a veterinary practice, Cheyenne River Animal Hospital, in Edgemont, S.D. “As I drove around the next day, I could see cows dead along the fence lines. I quickly realized how bad things really were.

“My first stop was to one of my clients who lost 150 of 400 head of replacement heifers that were tucked right in a lot close to home,” she adds. “Within the week, I had been to 20 places in the area and seen thousands of dead cattle. As a veterinarian, my job was to help verify how many cattle had died for insurance purposes. If ranchers didn’t have any specific blizzard insurance, they were pretty much up a creek without a paddle. Finding out the insurance companies weren’t going to cover for the blizzard was a low blow after all these ranchers had already endured.”

Koller-Ross saw thousands of dead cows, but only a fraction of what succumbed to the storm. At the low end, estimates range around 30,000 head lost, but between the floods, the massive acreage the storm covered, and many ranchers not reporting, most people dealing with the issues think the actual number is much higher.

“It will always be uncertain how many cattle died in this storm,” says Grill. “But, I wouldn’t be surprised if the number exceeded 75,000 head.”

“A week later, the next challenge for the ranchers was tending to the sick surviving cattle,” says Koller-Ross. “We were lucky to receive thousands of dollars of pharmaceutical donations to help treat sick animals. A lot of the cows were in tough shape after the storm, resulting in even more loss.”

The mainstream media was slow reporting on the Atlas Blizzard. When it finally did, the news wasn’t met with much empathy from readers across the country. Instead, online comments and feedback from U.S. consumers blamed the ranchers for the loss of so many cattle, citing negligence, greed, and carelessness as reasons why thousands of cattle died in the storm.

“For those people who said the ranchers don’t care about their animals, they are really missing out on who the backbone of this country is,” says Koller-Ross. “It broke my heart to read such terrible things about people who live and breathe the cattle business.”

“I know I’m not the only one to lie in bed at night and run through all of the things we could have done differently,” says Grill. “The devastation was surreal. It didn’t look real at first. It was so hard to process. Nothing made sense as we tried to add it up. Whether you had your calves up in the winter lots close to home or out in summer pastures, it didn’t seem to matter. This is an extremely long-term deal—emotionally, physically, and financially. It will be a long time before people know what kind of shape they are in.”

Looking at the factors that created what is being called “a perfect storm,” it’s clear that unpredictable elements stacked the odds against the ranching community in the area.

“Summer was still in full swing,” explains Grill. “Leaves were still on the trees. Cattle were spread all over on summer grasses. Cows were still nursing very big calves, so their body condition scores were lower. The cattle didn’t have winter coats yet, so they weren’t prepared for the storm ahead.”

“A blizzard like this might only happen once in a hundred years,” adds Koller-Ross. “How can you possibly prepare for something like this? This was just a really bad set of situations stacked together. Nobody could have predicted how bad this would be.”

Wisdom tells ranchers that a blizzard like this is a once-in-a-lifetime event, but Grill has his doubts. He lived through the infamous blizzard of 1997, which rivaled the 2013 blizzard in number of cattle deaths, but impacted a larger area from North Dakota down to Colorado.

“The big difference between this blizzard and the one in ’97 is that it happened toward the end of winter, when the cattle had heavy winter coats and were just starting to calve,” Grill notes. “It was also spread out over a longer period of time, with more snow falling each day, and it didn’t come fast and surprise folks like the Atlas Blizzard did.”

Other notable blizzards throughout history include one that hit Nebraska in the 1950s, and perhaps even more memorable was the “Great Die-Up” of 1886­–87, which brought an extremely harsh and long winter that killed both people and livestock. Because cattle were still run on the open range back then, the loss of cattle wasn’t discovered until spring. The surviving cattle were emaciated and suffering from frostbite, resulting in cattle being sold for much lower prices, and in some cases, leading to bankruptcy. Of particular interest, future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s cattle ranch in the Dakota territory was wiped out, causing him to abandon his ranching business and pursue his political career instead.

Ultimately, when nature is the adversary, it can be difficult to prepare for the next time a big storm hits the open prairie.

“I think the big thing ranchers have learned from blizzards like the one in 1997 is how important it is to verify loss quickly with a third-party verification to help document the deaths,” explains Koller-Ross.

“It’s important to be as ready as you possibly can be for adverse weather, but that can only take you so far,” adds Grill. “There’s only so much you can do to battle Mother Nature. She is a variable in the cattle business that can’t be controlled.”

As Grill and ranchers in the area work to pick up the pieces left from this devastating blizzard, there is much speculation about how the cattle deaths will impact things in the long-term.

“It’s unclear if the ranchers who were hit the hardest will be able to bounce back,” admits Koller-Ross. “They aren’t showing any inclination that they are giving up, but trying to pay the bills is a challenge. It will be a struggle for quite a few years.”

Looking past the cow-calf operator and beyond, the loss of tens of thousands of cattle will only accelerate declining herd numbers even further, says Kevin Good, senior analyst and manager of corporate accounts for CattleFax, based out of Centennial, Colo.

“From the 50,000-foot view, the market was going to be higher with tighter supplies, with or without the loss of these cattle in South Dakota,” explains Good. “In that area, it adds fuel to the fire for higher prices for bred females and calves. In the grand scheme of things, it’s kind of small when compared to the bigger picture, where the cowherd has been steadily declining for the past decade. With record-high prices, some moisture, and more affordable feed, we are seeing good conditions for folks to be able to expand a bit. High prices should stay strong for the next couple of years as we go through the rebuilding period. The bred-cow market in that particular area should be higher, as well as across the country.”

So, what do tighter supplies and higher prices mean for the cost of beef at the grocery store?

“Retail beef prices have gone up about 5 percent in the last couple of years,” explains Good. “We can compare that to inflation, which has gone up about 2 percent. It’s a good challenge that our product is increasing in value substantially faster than the rate of inflation over the past couple of years. Typically, this doesn’t happen. Retail prices will increase at a 4­–5 percent clip. The price point of beef in contrast to pork and poultry is higher, and consumer incomes are only going up by about 1 percent. In addition, we still have a record amount of people who rely on the government, and that is the consumer base we are concerned about with the rising price point of beef.”

While the Atlas Blizzard may not have an immediate impact on consumers buying beef at the deli case and in restaurants, it continues to haunt the ranchers of South Dakota.

“If the wind is blowing hard in the middle of the night, I still lie awake worrying about what might be going wrong outside,” says Grill. “It will be a long time before anyone around here forgets what happened in the October blizzard of 2013.”

“These ranchers are resilient,” says Koller-Ross. “They’ve weathered through droughts, high prices, and other challenges. I’m so impressed with how positive people are staying even in the face of great adversity.”

Although the government has yet to offer assistance, the agriculture community has rallied together to help their own. From pot-loads of donated heifers coming from South Dakota and surrounding states to the Rancher’s Relief Fund, which has raised thousands of dollars for the ranchers, to an FFA fundraiser, which is helping FFA students who lost cattle in the storm, to even the smallest of donations, every little bit has helped these ranchers, both financially and emotionally.

“There aren’t enough pages out there to write down the different ways people have helped the ranching community after this blizzard,” says Grill, who also credits his wife, Diana, and children Chance (age 12), Taylor (10), and Cade (9), for helping him get through the blizzard. “One friend brought us firewood when we were out of electricity, and another brought several generators to help us keep things running. A group of school kids in Wyoming donated a package of goodies for my family, including a pet rock, $25 in change, board games for the kids, and other small items to let us know they are thinking about us. These kids gave everything they had. It was very touching.

“At the end of the day, this blizzard brought our community together,” he adds. “This was a time of great loss, and going at it alone was tough. By talking to other ranchers and realizing there are other people going through the same things, we were able to make it through together.”

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