Questioning Cattle Deaths in South Dakota

I’ve been reading through blog posts about the aftermath of last weeks winter storm in South Dakota.  I came across a couple of news articles on CNN and NBC News sites.  And then I did something I never, ever should have done.  I scrolled down to the comments section.  Word of advice: Do Not Scroll Down to the Comments Section.  Ever.

It’s not a nice place.  People are very nasty there.  It made me sad and mad and dumbfounded.  There were so many accusations  comments from so many people who very clearly of little to no understanding of ranching or livestock.  But boy oh boy, do they have opinions!

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I am not here to try to change anyone’s mind, this is after all, a free country.  All I’m asking is that you try to base your opinions on facts and not assumptions or rumors.

I’ve reworded some of the most common accusations  comments into questions to try to set a respectful tone and I’ve tried my best to answer them.

Didn’t everyone know this storm was coming?  Shouldn’t they have been more prepared? – The original forecast in the week or so leading up to the storm was for 10-15 inches of snow.  And while it is early for it to snow that much, that isn’t an unusual amount for the area and something that cattle can handle without too much stress.  The forecasted amount of snow was increased, 24-48 hours before it hit, to 18-30 inches.  What actually happened was 2 inches (or more in some areas) of rain, followed by 30+ inches of snow and hurricane force winds.  So, yes they knew a storm was coming and prepared for what they thought they were in for.  They just didn’t know what they were in for.

Why were all the cattle out in the open?  Shouldn’t they have been moved into barns? These cattle are kept out in pastures to graze on grass.  The pastures are very large and often miles away from ranch headquarters.  They are not kept in barns.  There are no barns. There are no barns big enough to hold the numbers of cattle we are talking about.  It would not be economically feasible or practical.  The cattle are built for living outside.  Even if there were barns to put them in, they would not have been safe as the weight of the snow in this storm would have likely collapsed many roofs.

If they are use to being outside during the winter then why was this storm such a big deal? There are a few things that were different about this storm than a typical winter storm.  First, the cattle were all still out on summer pastures.  Typically, cattle are taken to different pastures, or parts of the ranch, during the summer – these are often higher elevations, farther from the ranch headquarters and often more open, with fewer sheltered areas – and then moved at some time in late fall to winter pastures.  Winter pastures are usually  closer to headquarters so the cattle are easier to get to for feeding, doctoring ect.  Winter pastures also tend to have more sheltered areas to offer protection during storms.

Ok, so then why didn’t everyone just move their cattle to winter pastures before the storm hit? One reason is because they truly did not know that the storm would be nearly as severe as it was.  Another is because it is typical to still have cattle on summer pastures at this time of year if the grass is still plentiful.  This keeps the cows and calves happy and saves the grass on the winter ground for, well for, winter.  If cattle are moved too early onto winter pastures they will run out of grass early which means they will need to be fed hay earlier.  Because we never know how long a winter will last and we don’t want to get to March or April and run out of hay – as that is often when big spring snow storms hit – we try to hold out feeding hay as long as there is grass for the cattle to eat.  The weather had been great, the grass was still good out on summer ranges, the forecast was for a significant snow but not for a record breaking blizzard.

And you have to understand that moving them would have taken time.  For instance, on our ranch it takes about 3 days to gather the cattle up from our summer pastures and to get them to the trail leading down to winter ground and then, in good weather, about 2 days to trail them down.  So it takes roughly a week to move cattle from summer ground to winter ground. This isn’t something that you just run out and do in a few hours right before a storm.  You need a significant amount of lead time.  This storm was not forecast to be this severe a week out.

Why not just load them up and truck them all to winter pastures? They would have had to call to schedule trucks, gather the cattle – which could take a day to two or three depending on the size of the ranch – load them on trucks and haul them to new pastures.  There wasn’t time and the weather would have definitely impeded things.  On our ranch if there was an inch or two of rain the trucks simply would not have been able to get to the cattle.

It still seems odd that so many would die? Some other factors that contributed to the death loss are the fact that, because the weather had been so nice, the cattle had not begun to grow their winter coats.  In addition to that there was the rain for several hours in advance of the snow, then the temperature dropped and then the snow and wind started in.  The snow was heavy and wet and there was a lot of it.  The winds were gusting  around 70+ miles an hour.  The cattle began drifting with the wind and some found themselves falling into creek beds where they were buried and suffocated by the snow and wind and some drifted into and were caught in fence lines.

Didn’t the ranchers try to save them? As I said before, they really didn’t know that the storm would be as severe as it was.  By the time that was evident they literally could not get out of their houses until it stopped snowing and then they had to dig their way out.  They got to their cattle as quickly as they could.

Don’t they already get a lot of subsidies and price supports from the government?  There are no subsidies or price supports for livestock.  The Farm Bill – which is currently expired and in limbo – does have price and income supports for some crops – corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice and dairy.  Beef cattle are not in that group.

What does the government shutdown have to do with this? There is a section in the Farm Bill that does set aside some disaster aid for farmers and ranchers for weather related disasters such as this.  This money could, potentially, be used to help some of the ranchers affected by this storm.  We currently don’t know, obviously, since the bill has expired and no one in Washington is working.  Some media outlets have highlighted this since the shutdown is the talk of the town. Most ranchers are too busy cleaning up to give it much thought.

Don’t ranchers get like $1000 a head?  Aren’t they all rich anyway so what’s the big deal? Shouldn’t they be able to handle the economic impact just fine?  Cattle prices have been higher this year, that is true.  Partly due to lower cattle numbers related to the drought that has plagued the west for the past couple of year.  So, while prices are up, ranchers have fewer calves to sell, so that often evens itself out.  This summer calves were bringing around $850-$950 a head and yearlings (these are at least a year old) were bringing around $1500 a head.  So, yes those are very good prices.  But please understand that that is not straight profit.  You have to take out all your expenses which likely include but are not limited to – loan payments, feed, vet supplies, equipment costs, fuel costs, taxes, insurance on buildings and vehicles, insurance on cattle if you can afford it, health insurance on family and employees, wages, groceries, trucking costs.

Most ranchers have to take out an operating loan to get through the year.  They typically ship calves in the fall and that is their one paycheck for the year.  Hopefully, it is enough to pay back their operating loan, replace any equipment that needs replacing and restock a few supplies for next year.  Some years they make some extra money beyond what they need to just keep operating, some years they break even and some years they end up in the hole.

I’m not sure where the idea came from, that most ranchers are sitting on piles of cash but most are not.  Yes, there are a few and many of them made those piles of cash from other things – oil, gas, land sales, “town jobs” – but that is the exception not the rule, most are operating on a thin profit margin and this will have a significant impact.

How long will it take to rebuild their herds? It will probably take 2 to 3 years to replace what they have lost.  For those that had not yet shipped their fall calves they lost this year’s calf, which is this year’s paycheck. They also lost a pregnant cow.  The calf she was carrying would be next year’s paycheck.  And they lost the cow.  So they have essentially lost 3 generations at once.  This will take several years.

Won’t insurance cover this?  They do have insurance right?  You can get insurance for cattle.  Most ranchers don’t because of the thin profit margin.  They can’t really afford it and so they cross their fingers and hope for the best.  Also, for those that are able to buy insurance for their herds, it will not reimburse them for their total loss, only a portion.   For those that have it, it will help for sure.  To my knowledge not many have it, not because they are being irresponsible but because they had to prioritize their expenses and that one was too far down on the list to get covered.

Aren’t they just looking for a handout?  No.  I have not heard any rancher asking for a handout.  I have heard some questioning why this wasn’t in the news more because it will have such a huge impact on their communities.  They just felt it was as newsworthy as Miley’s twerking  and things of that nature.  I think they really just wanted to feel like the rest of the country saw that they were struggling and wished them good luck.

But I bet they will take government money in the end.  I don’t get any government money for my business, why should they?  I don’t know if they will receive disaster aid or not but if it is offered I am sure many will take advantage of it.  Many, if not most, will have no choice but to take any aid offered if they want to continue ranching and even then it won’t cover everything.  Just like when disaster aid is offered after hurricanes or tornadoes or other natural disasters people take it so they can try to get back on their feet, not because they want to stick it to the taxpayer.  I might venture to guess that if your business was struck by a hurricane or tornado there would be disaster relief available and if it was you would likely use it to rebuild….but maybe not. I don’t really know you, so I won’t jump to any conclusions.

But ranching and farming are always risky, they should be used to it, it’s what they signed up for isn’t it?  Very true.  Ranching is risky business and every rancher knows that.  This event, however, was well beyond the typical risk that we all accept.  This was like the difference between a category 1 hurricane and a category 5, it was beyond what anyone could have anticipated. Even so, no one is asking for anyone to feel sorry for them, just some acknowledgment, maybe a little compassion and a prayer or two.

If it’s such a hard business and such a slim profit margin why don’t they just do something else? Think about that thing that you love to do more than anything else.  That thing you dream about doing.  That thing that you just think you might not be able to go on if you couldn’t do it anymore.  That thing that brings you joy and makes you smile just thinking about.  Is it golf? Fishing? Football? Running? Maybe it’s your job? And what about that place you like to go to, that place where you feel most at home?  Most yourself?  The place you always wish you could always be at?  Is it a cabin up north?  Is it the top of ski hill?  On the lake? In the woods?  And then think about your grandparents’ house or maybe even your great grandparents’ house and all the memories that go with it.  Ranching, for these people, is all of that.  All of it.  All of it wrapped up into one thing.  It’s their family, their home, their history and future.  It’s their lifestyle, their hobby and the essence of who they are.  It’s not just a job or a paycheck.  It’s who they are.  It’s what they love.

But they raise these animals for slaughter, so do they really even care about them or is it all about the money?  Ouch!  That one really stings!  Yes, it’s true, beef cattle are raised to be harvested for meat.  Meat that feeds many people.  I know, I know, some of you are going to say things like,  “it’s not healthy anyway”, that’s a debate for another time (and a statement I do not believe to be true).  Many people eat meat and rely on it as their preferred source of protein.  If that’s not you, I’m totally ok with that, that’s your choice, and I in no way want to try to change that about you, but just understand others feel differently.

So yes, we raise these animals to eat.  But that does not mean we don’t care about them.  We work hard to raise them in comfortable, healthy and safe environments.  We respect them and care for them.  We want their lives to be good.  We work hard to make sure they are treated humanely up to and including slaughter.  If you are interested in learning more about that, a good resource is Temple Grandin’s website and writings.

Ranchers care deeply about their livestock.  They do not just see them as dollar signs.  They see them as their life’s work.  And it is hard to see that gone in one fell swoop.

There were many other comments but this post is already so long.  If you are not in the livestock industry and have read this post all the way through to the end, I want to thank you.  I appreciate that you took the time to read it through.  My hope is that maybe you might have a deeper understanding of the events that occurred and the challenges ahead for those most affected. If you have question, please ask them.  Look for reliable sources and ask questions. It’s so easy to get caught up in the web of misinformation out there – especially in the comments section.  There are links at the end of this post for where you can find more information and thoughts from those more directly affected then my family has been.  And to those of you posted positive messages in the comments section, words of encouragement, prayers and good wishes, thank you, thank you very much.

Red Dirt In My Soul

Double H Photography

Just A Ranch Wife

South Dakota Cowgirl

Beef Magazine

The Adventures of Dairy Carrie

Agriculture Proud – this post has a long list of resources and links to other blog posts

There are also two organizations started by ranchers and other community members, in attempt to support those most affected by Atlas Ranchers Relief Fund,  Atlas Blizzard Ranch Relief and Aid.

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533 Responses to Questioning Cattle Deaths in South Dakota

  1. I read your article with great interest. Although I am not a rancher, I have been a business owner and I can tell you one fact in common with all business people. For those who know nothing about a business but what they see and hear on the outside, there is another side to it… That is the behind the scenes working part of it….the caring, the set backs , the expense,(yes, it is not all profit.)..they have bills and expenses too…All the customer sees is the money coming in……never a thought about what money has to go out to keep that money coming in…Every person should be in a business just once in their life, in order to get an understanding how it works…from the struggling paper carriers (who have to try to collect from customers so they can pay for the papers they deliver), to the CEO of big business…It is all the same, just on a different level!

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