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Life and goodness triumph over death
Acts of kindness and generosity - small as they may seem - bring on new life and hope

There are five cows for every person in South Dakota. That being the case, the South Dakota Beef Council partners with states like Pennsylvania to use the state portion of their checkoff funds to reach consumers on the East Coast. Two years of drought, followed by an early October blizzard in the beef cow territory of western South Dakota have contributed to U.S. beef cattle numbers being the smallest since 1952. Ranches like the Wink Ranch pictured here near Howes, S.D., lost, on average, 50% of their herd numbers in Storm Atlas, and the ratio was two-thirds cows to calves, so the loss was felt again while calving in a storm-shortened 2014 calf crop this spring.
Photos by Sherry Bunting

(Inset) Dean Wink of Wink Ranch, Howes, S.D. found this year's calving a bittersweet reminder of the lost cows and calves, while a celebration of new life and hope.

By Sherry Bunting
Special for Farmshine

With celebrations of Mother’s Day in the rearview mirror, Memorial Day around the corner, and warmer weather kicking off the grilling season, May is the time we celebrate National Beef Month. Consumers, however, are dismayed by rising prices.

By January 1, 2014, the biannual nationwide cattle count by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) showed the U.S. cow herd was the smallest since 1952.

At least a part of that price picture stems back to two years of drought, followed by last October’s untimely and devastating blizzard that hit the mama-cow prairielands of western South Dakota and portions of Nebraska and Wyoming.

In fact, for ranchers in areas of the country where drought-liquidation and natural disasters have set them back, today’s high cattle prices are a double-edged sword. In western South Dakota, for example, the losses from Storm Atlas were 3 to 1 cows over calves. That means the range of 30 to 80% of herd totals lost in the storm include not only portions of the 2013 calf crop income, but also the cows that died took with them a portion of the 2014 calf crop and the opportunity to breed for a 2015 crop. That is 3 to 4 years of income affected.

According to the Rancher Relief Fund established on Oct. 8 by the S.D. Stockgrowers Association, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and S.D. Sheep Growers Association, the livestock losses reported to the Fund as of April 25, 2014, are 43,000 total head of livestock, including 36,000 cattle and calves, 6500 sheep and 500 horses.

Most folks expect the final tally to increase to between 60,000 and 80,000 cattle in the weeks ahead as ranchers could begin filling out applications for the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) in the recently passed Farm Bill when USDA released the rules two weeks ago. But the fact of the matter is that the true impact of the blizzard -- in cattle numbers -- may never be fully recorded because some ranchers went through the process of finding and burying hundreds of their lost cows and have decided not to speak of it again.

For the most part, these are not insurable losses, except for cattle that were found to have directly fallen into water. While breathing in the moisture-laden snow and suffocating in 8-foot drifts may look like drowning, it did not meet the “accidental drowning” standard of most livestock insurance policies. Folks at the Stockgrowers Association say they are working with public officials and private industry to develop products that can help in such natural disasters in the future.

Last week I toured the hardest hit areas, near -- of all places -- the town of Faith, South Dakota. I spoke with ranchers in the swath of western South Dakota, where cattle losses ranged 30 to 80% of their already-thinned herds. In the high country draws, as well as the winding ravines of the Cheyenne and Rapid Rivers, the snow was thawing and ranchers were still finding -- and burying -- October casualties.

One of the ranches I visited received 17 cattle from Heifers for South Dakota. A few of those bred heifers were from the 40-head load sent in February from the Rockingham, Virginia Feeder Cattle Association to the commingling center at Tom Brunner’s feedlot -- a former dairy farm --west of Sturgis.

“These cattle just fit in so nice,” said Mark Sanders of Sanders Ranch, Hermosa, southwest of Rapid City. He was surprised the ranch he operates with his wife Lisa, brothers Ed and Jim and Jim’s wife, Sheri was nominated repeatedly to receive cattle from the Heifers for South Dakota (HSD) project. The Sanders Ranch lost about 40% of their herd. The day they were notified to come pick up bred heifers from HSD, was a day of hope for the future.

“The Virginia cattle had no trouble calving here. They are good size, high quality cattle and they came ready with a good hair coat,” Sanders reported.

After visiting seven ranches and speaking with other ranchers at various brandings during the week, and talking with folks like Amy Pravecek, the Zoetis territory manager for western South Dakota, it’s clear the ranchers lost 2 to 3 cows for every calf. The cows are the ‘beef factories’ and the income drivers of a ranch.

Pravecek and her husband Ben have helped the HSD project, transporting donated bulls over Easter weekend, and on the first day after the blizzard as the magnitude was realized, she carried out Zoetis’ generosity by seeing to it that veterinarians and farm supply stores had free antibiotics and vaccines for surviving cattle.

Shawn Freeland, a young rancher near Caputa, S.D., who also received cattle from HSD, tried to find the words: “The best way I can describe the impact on our whole community is to imagine if all the restaurant owners and grocers in New York City woke up one morning to find half their inventory gone. Their loss is not insurable. And they discover half of their customers are also gone, and those customers are people they have known for generations. They’ve watched them come in with their children, watched their children get married and bring grandchildren ...”

“The storm was a reminder that we are always just one event away from not having a market or something to take to the market. Every rancher knows that, but what we have experienced after the storm, nothing really prepares you for that,” said his wife Kristi as Shawn thumbed through the October photos on his cell phone.

“It was 80 degrees the day before the storm. Here’s my wife and the girls in the garden on a bright sunny day,” he said as he surfed the images. “I was cutting hay. My tractors, all of my equipment, was out on the hay ground. The cattle were on summer pasture. The forecast was for a dusting.”

By 3 p.m. that next day, the forecast was 9 to 12”. They ended up with 36” and 8-foot drifts. But what really hurt the cattle was the 1.75” of rain that saturated their still-sleek summer coats ahead of the snow.

He moved the ones he could as the forecast developed. But most of the cattle were miles away. When the vortex of the wind shifted, it flushed cattle from the wind breaks and cedar trees as they moved out of the draws. Having been previously soaked by the rain, they turned to keep their rears to the wind, and that’s when they became disoriented.

“The snow was blue,” said Gary Cammack of Union Center, S.D. “It had this blue cast to it, so heavy with moisture. It was too much for them.”

The young ranchers are his concern. Older ranchers have some equity built up, he said, but the young ranchers have debts and need income to keep going. The high cattle prices make it too expensive for young ranchers to buy cows and rebuild their herds. Heifers for South Dakota and the Ranchers’ Relief Fund have helped bring hope to the area, as will the Farm Bill’s Livestock Indemnity Program in the coming months.

The thing that stood out after the storm, was how “the birds just stopped singing.”

It took 48 hours for most cattlemen to dig out and begin to move toward where their cattle were. Some were afoot, others on horseback, or if they were lucky they could get to their equipment. It took hours to navigate what would normally be a short distance. The land was quiet.

In the town of Faith, S.D. Hugh Ingalls has been a purebred Angus breeder for all of his 80-some years. He found most of his losses along the fence down by the gate. “They were waiting for me,” he said softly. He lost 189 cows, including 12 of his 21 Pathfinders. A “Pathfinder” is a bull-mama showing good transfer of the most desirable genetic traits for good mothering and calf weights and beef quality. Those cows represented decades of genetic improvement and generations of “family” at Hugh and Eleanor Ingalls’ Centennial Angus.

“As the cows calved-in, and we tagged and recorded them this spring, it was a reminder of mothers, grandmothers, sisters, that didn’t make it,” observed Dean Wink, 30 miles from Faith near Howes, S.D. He explained that for the older generation, the cattle are their investment, their IRA. The spring after Atlas is a time for decisions and one of the positives is how older ranchers are seeking out the younger ranchers like never before.

In the midst of losses that are still being counted, there is hope, faith, and boots-on-the-ground work across the region. Ranchers said that it was the early relief efforts that kept them going. The numbers of cattle donated are a drop in the bucket, “but the hope they bring -- the feeling that we’re not alone, that someone as far away as Virginia would donate a top quality bred heifer to a guy like me here in South Dakota, well I can’t even put a number on that,” said Sanders.

Even though the spring thaw has revealed more dead cattle to bury, the early blizzard and long winter have replenished the land with moisture after two years of drought.

“We are so thankful there was no loss of human life during the blizzard,” said Wink. “And that we didn’t lose anyone in the despair that followed. The LIP in the Farm Bill will help ranchers and the economy, but it was the immediate relief efforts like Heifers for South Dakota and Rancher Relief Fund that show what kind of country we live in…

“The stock dams are full of water, there is moisture in the soil and we have new calves on the ground,” he said with a smile.

“It was good to hear the song of the meadowlark again this spring,” added his wife Joan, whose Grandma Grace first homesteaded the land over 100 years ago.