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‘Big shot’ news organizations: Get out of town!
Blizzard causes death of possibly more than 100,000 cattle; media oblivious; relief efforts underway

Dean Wink on horseback casts a shadow on the snow as he assesses his losses after the catastrophic blizzard. Photo by Joan Wink

Special for Farmshine

RAPID CITY, S.D. -- While the media remains fixed on reminding us hourly of financial uncertainty, political divide, and other “crisis du-jour,” a picture of true devastation from “Atlas” -- the blizzard that pummeled the Black Hills region of western South Dakota and portions of Wyoming and Nebraska on October 4-5 -- is finally emerging. Up until now, the only news of this heart wrenching saga was told by bloggers and through social media posts on facebook and twitter.

It was because of those social media pioneers, and the cross-cultural contacts they’ve made online and in person, that a tiny glimpse of the story finally reached major media outlets like CNN, NBC, CBS and The New York Times 10 days later on October 15.

“It’s amazing really. If not for the bloggers, no one would know,” said Dean Wink of Wink Cattle Company near Howes, South Dakota in a phone interview with Farmshine Wednesday afternoon, October 16. “This news can be lost because we’re a sparsely populated area.”

For Wink, a state representative, and his wife Joan, professor emerita, California State University – Stanislaus, cattle ranching goes back three generations. Their ranch was once Joan’s grandparents’ land.

As the snow melts to reveal more of the losses, South Dakota ranchers have the grim task of sorting the live and dead to determine their own official herd losses. Recent estimates range from a staggering 65,000 to as many as 110,000 head, with individual ranchers estimating losses between 20 and 80% of their herds -- their life’s work, lifeblood, and livelihood.

“We are really still gauging that,” said Wink. “For the first couple days, we still had lots of snow. Then, we had some warm days to melt the snow, so the cattle that survived could graze again. We’re finding neighbors’ cattle mixed with ours and sorting that out. Cattle have drifted 12 miles or so.” He describes the process of sorting and tending survivors.

“But the body count? Nobody really knows. We’re finding cattle in dams just coming to the surface. Some are under drifts. Just this morning I finally got out to places I couldn’t get to before, and I found 10 more dead. We’re still missing cattle, and we don’t know if they drifted south, mingled with a neighbor’s or are still under remaining drifts. We have neighbors that have lost hundreds of cattle. When we wean our calves for sale and preg check the cows, we’ll find a few more that aren’t there.”

Government agents advise ranchers to wait until they have hard numbers before reporting their losses, so Wink believes it will be a month or so before the full extent of the losses are really known.

While the government shut down and lack of a farm bill weighs heavy in the situation for cattle ranchers, they are busy with the grim task of cutting ear tags and gathering proof of their herd numbers before and after the blizzard. Both the House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill contain the Livestock Indemnity Program, which is designed for such disasters. Wink says it’s especially important for the young ranchers.

“They are just trying to get started and have their loans to pay. I know of two young producers who lost 60% of their herds,” he said. “With a 3 to 1 loss ratio of cows to calves, what’s lost is the ‘calf factory.’ Even some of the surviving cows may abort. To start building up the herd, normally you keep 20% of your heifers, now you have to keep double that to get back what you lost. That can take four to five years.”

In the meantime – for young producers – that means a small calf crop to sell and less cash flow to pay loans. Not to mention, this comes on the heels of last year’s drought with a national cow herd at its lowest level since the 1950s.

“To buy heifers, there won’t be a lot to choose from, and they’ll be very expensive,” Wink observed.

The spotty coverage by the news media, has left questions in the minds of some as to how so many cattle could die in a region where they are used to winter weather and being outside.

For starters, it’s not winter. And if anything, the balmy temps and lush pastures from August rains gave cattle no indication for an early winter coat. Preliminary autopsies indicate fluid in the lungs, so it appears the cattle suffocated. Wink noted that the snow was heavy and wet and that the temperatures were barely below freezing.

“I think a lot of them laid down and were tired and breathed in the wet snow and drowned,” he said. “Even after the storm, we knew it would be bad, but we had no idea we’d have what we have had. In the draws, the cattle were drifted in, with 20’ high drifts. They may have walked across the fresh snow and became stuck, and that’s where we’re finding them.”

The storm was predicted to be innocent enough, early on. Some rain followed by a little snow. It was October 4th, after all, barely two weeks into Fall.

By the time the forecast and weather changed, it was too late to move thousands of cattle out of the high country summer grazing. That is normally a week-long process in the late fall of bringing from high summer pasture closer to ranch headquarters, when calves are sold to feedlots for finishing and the mama cows -- already in-calf for the spring crop -- are wintered. So, not only were the cattle caught off guard, so were the ranchers.

“We had a few hours of rain,” Wink recalls the afternoon of October 4. Then, just hours before sundown, it changed to blizzard conditions. There are some things we could have done if we had known it would be this much of a blast. But it was the perfect storm stacked up against the cows: Rain, then sleet, and with no winter coat yet, they chilled down faster than normal. Then it turned to snow and we had white-out conditions for hours, and then the 70 mph winds snapping a reported 4300 power poles in the next county over. It was the combination of things -- and the timing -- the cows were not prepared for it. We were not prepared for it. Mother nature can be pretty brutal at times, and people in cities can’t have a true appreciation for that unless they are in it.”

He observes that folks in the business of agriculture can understand what those outside of agriculture cannot. “They know things happen: Some things we can prepare for, and some things catch us by surprise.”

The path forward will vary. Compared with last year’s drought, this year’s August rains and the October storm have left the ground soaked up with moisture for what should be a good grass year next year, according to Wink. “Some people may try running yearlings or buying cows. Others may disperse.”

He says that many of these folks have homesteaded this land since the early 1900s.

One thing is certain. “Something like this brings a community together. Neighbors are helping neighbors, finding cattle, bringing them back. We appreciate help when we are needing it this bad, and it is healing to have neighbors help you do stuff. The rural communities and towns that depend on agriculture are also helping. The businesses are giving back and helping however they can, and that is healing.”

While he’s not very optimistic about the Farm Bill being high on the list to get done in Washington right now, Wink said ranchers “will tough it out.”

They’ll help each other, and others are reaching out to help them. The land and the cattle and the people of the prairie are inextricably linked.

Probably the most important thing they need, he said, is morale support.

“People are still in shock,” said Wink’s wife Joan. “And so are the cows. Seeing cows walking around truly aimlessly and seeing the loss… everywhere. That image will stay with me. When you lose a cow, you’ve lost the next several generations and she is a result of ongoing breeding you take pride in.”

Daughter Dawn Wink put it this way on her blog: “What lies on the prairie now along with the physical dead are the dreams, years, decades, generations of back-breaking and soul-hoping work, all with the dream of creating a life for one’s family.”