The beginning of this month saw an unexpected blizzard that killed thousands of livestock in western South Dakota. The storm began on Oct. 3 with 2” of rain, which turned into a snowstorm with 70-mile-per-hour winds the following day. On Oct. 5, 5’ of snow cloaked the hardest hit parts of the state west of the Missouri River.
Ranchers suffered a tremendous blow as thousands of their prized livestock suffocated in massive snowdrifts or froze to death. Though cattle were the vast majority of the casualties, many of those lost animals were horses.
The Rapid City Journal reported, ”tens of thousands of cattle lie dead across South Dakota on Monday following a blizzard that could become one of the most costly in the history of the state’s agriculture industry.”
The cost was far greater than monetary.
After a power outage and two-day containment within their homes, ranchers plowed outside to discover their cherished animals lying dead in pastures, and those they saw at first glance were only at the tip of the iceberg. They discovered more each day.
Dr. Kami Ireland, a Rapid City veterinarian, said, “I lost six horses: four yearlings and two weanlings, and my dad lost 80 percent of his cow herd. We’re just a small segment. Most people in the area have lost up to 400 head of cattle, and I know people who have lost 50 horses.” She admitted that there are many others worse off, “but it’s still meaningful and hard for us.”
Leslie and Shawn Merrill started the Ranchers Quarter Horse Breeders Association 15 years ago on their farm in Wall, S.D. They lost dozens of their four-legged family.
“They had forecasted a minor storm was going to roll in but we didn’t feel threatened,” Leslie Merrill recalled of the day prior to the storm. “It was nice out.”
The rain soon turned into a piercing sleet, which “stung your skin,” she said, “we tucked all the horses in, still not feeling that it was going to be a livestock life-threatening storm. We have 20’ high wind breaks in our corrals, and not even in three-day blizzards with 30 degrees below zero wind chill have we lost anything on our ranch before.”
By the following morning, she and her family weren’t able to see outside their iced-over house windows. “At that point we started to panic,” said Leslie. “You couldn’t even step outside. As soon as it started to break just a little, about two hours after daybreak, we went outside to the horses.”
The Merrills immediately saw one of their Quarter Horses lying dead in the wind-protected corral. The other was lying down near the fence line, and after an hour of trying to revive him they made the decision to euthanize him, mid-blizzard. “We rubbed him and rubbed him and tried to get blankets around him but he had hit his head several times on the fence trying to get up,” she said.
They were able to revive a 2-year old filly in the same pen. “Her desire to live and toughness were incredible,” said Leslie. Plowing through the snowdrifts that blocked the arena doors, they managed to get her inside. “She was disoriented, hypothermic and couldn’t keep her balance,” Leslie continued.
They managed to rescue four saddle horses and two 2-year olds, ushering them into the protected arena from the corrals nearest their house.
“After the corrals, we knew that we would have to check the pastures,” she said. “I was very concerned for our two old studs that we’d tucked into thickets and trees the night before.”
Her husband bulldozed through the smallest pasture to reach the old studs, 18 and 25 years old, and they were fine.
The rest of the horses were in larger summer pastures with sparser woods. “We hadn’t come home to the winter pastures yet because we still had moisture. The grass was green,” she said.
“We were absolutely shocked,” said Leslie describing her family’s drive along the fence line of their summer pastures. “It’s amazing, [our children] have grown up with this. They know this is a way of life. They know livestock can die, and that it’s their responsibility to find them, figure out the cause and see what we can do better next time. So my daughter and I walked together and there were several horses with feet sticking straight up out of drifts and we tried to identify feet so we could get some sort of count, a sense of who was missing and who was there,” but on that day, a full count was impossible.
“Even since the storm, yearlings have died because it’s been so stressful,” she said. “We have a registered herd that is quite expensive and we’ve put 15 years into selective breeding to get them.” There’s a big concern for 2014 prospects as some mares have abandoned foals due to stress.
Merrill remembered asking herself, “Why didn’t I put them in? Why didn’t I realize this was going to be so severe?” During the storm, she and her husband didn’t realize that their neighbors were going through the same tragedy, many with greater quantities of livestock.
The Winter Storm Atlas dubbed the catastrophe as a freak early snow storm, wiping out an estimated 10 percent of livestock in the state’s western region—about 100,000 animals.
Before the U.S. government shutdown and expiration of the 2008 farm bill on Oct. 1, affected ranchers could have applied for relief through the Livestock Indemnity Program that would pay them a portion of the animals’ market value.
"With the government shutdown and no farm bill in place, we need South Dakotans to help their neighbors,” said governor Dennis Daugard on Oct. 9.
To donate to the Rancher Relief Fund, visit www.giveblackhills.org and search "Rancher Relief Fund." Donors can also mail checks to Rancher Relief Fund, PO Box 231, Rapid City, S.D. 57709.