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Snow was bad in Wyoming, far worse in South Dakota

Oct 13, 2013 - By John M. Glionna, McClatchy-Tribune News Service

BELLE FOURCHE, S.D. -- From inside a small plane cruising over cattle country here, Scott Reder spied the carnage and felt sick to his stomach.

Mile after mile, half-buried by snow, the dead animals lay huddled in groups, calves close to their to mothers -- carcasses by the dozens strung out along field fences and packed into ditches, black hooves poking up through the drifts like macabre stakes.

"In 20 years of flying, I've never been sick, but I had to let my friend take over," Reder recalled. "I looked down and saw 120 of my cattle lying there dead. After I'd finally had enough. I said 'Let's go home.' "

Reder is among thousands of ranchers who last week watched helplessly as a killer early-autumn blizzard decimated 80,000 head of cattle. Calling it the state's worst economic disaster in decades, officials say the storm has ravaged South Dakota's $7 billion livestock industry.

On Friday, as rain pelted the region near the historic Black Hills, ranchers continued tallying their grim toll, roaming the soggy backcountry, collecting carcasses from melting snow, knowing that perhaps tens of thousands more still lay buried.

Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, called the die-off a "perfect storm" of bad weather and -- amid the federal shutdown -- worse political timing.

The disaster has already caused a "noticeable jump" in the price of live cattle, a rise that could eventually be felt by consumers, she said. "Beef prices will depend on how fast we can get cattle to market again," Christen said. "If people want to help, go out and buy a steak tonight."

South Dakota ranks sixth in the country in livestock production, with nearly 4 million head of cattle. Officials say 6,000 ranching operations suffered losses from the storm.

The blizzard hit just days after 80-degree weather, before ranchers had moved their herds from less-protected summer grazing lands. Most ranchers were set to bring calves to market -- the satisfying payday after another year of grueling labor. Thousands of head had been recently relocated here from Texas and New Mexico to escape punishing droughts in those states.

"Some ranchers lost all their cattle. They've yet to find one alive," Christen said. "They're facing absolute destruction."

Yet Washington's shutdown has deprived people here of a traditional safety net: Congress hasn't passed a new farm bill to subsidize agricultural producers, and the lockout means legislators won't be voting on the topic any time soon.

These days, Reder passes a federal Farm Services Administration office whose doors are closed. Like most American ranchers, the 47-year-old is a resilient small businessman used to tending to his own problems, with help from neighbors whose families settled this land generations ago.

Still, he's frustrated and feels that federal lawmakers have turned their backs on the nation's heartland in a time of need.

"We're just a bunch of ranchers from South Dakota -- it's hard for our voices to be heard," he said, sitting at the kitchen table at dawn Friday, drinking coffee, fielding calls from fellow cattlemen. "You see crises across the country, the hurricanes and tornadoes, and officials are on right on top of it. But something of this magnitude, that has just about leveled this part of the country, and there's nothing."

Many residents in this conservative region had supported the government shutdown as a way to make Washington more fiscally responsible. "But one appropriate role for these guys is to lend a hand after disasters like this," Christen said, "and they're not here."

Reder's losses are steep. Out of 750 head of cattle he grazed across 40,000 acres, 200 are dead and others are missing. He lost 100 of the 450 calves he had planned to market this month. He says he's already lost between $250,000 and $300,000 and expects the losses will grow.

Ranchers described how the fluke storm struck Oct. 3, with heavy rain that rapidly turned into flurries. By the next day, as much as four feet of snow, combined with 70 mph winds, doomed cattle and sheep trapped out in summer grazing land known as gumbo fields for their soft sticky soil.

Lamphere, a former ranch hand, said the cattle lacked their warmer winter coats to protect them from wet snow that stuck to bodies already chilled by freezing rain. He said cattle caught in the open field by bad weather instinctively head downwind, their heads low, as they seek shelter.

"They go into survival mode," he said. "Some animals walked 12 miles, breaking through fences, crossing highways, until they finally met their end."

Unable to see, many livestock fell into ditches, quickly covered by trailing animals in a tragic chain reaction.

Some animals were so weary they stood frozen in groups, eventually suffocated by piling snow. Cattle collapsed along fences, perishing from hypothermia, others hit by passing cars.

Last Saturday, snow plows moved scores of dead animals from roadways.

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