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HERMOSA, S.D. — By now, much of the snow has melted, matting the grass and soaking the fields, turning them into a brown, muddy sponge that can swallow even the hardiest of tractor wheels.
Alan Bishop, 48, slows his truck at the intersection of two dirt roads and steadies his hands on the steering wheel. He nods toward the fence line where swollen, black carcasses of cows dot the field, one of them a new mother caught on a barbed-wired fence, her udders still pink and swollen.
It has been almost a week since 70 mph winds ushered in an onslaught of sleet and more than three feet of snow — an early fall blizzard that stunned the western end of South Dakota and marked Black Hills history.
As residents clean up debris and swap stories of downed power lines and stranded motorists, ranchers like Bishop face a grueling task: counting dead cattle.
An estimated 10,000 to 20,000 cows died in South Dakota during the storm, brought down by hypothermia, exposure and drowning. The state’s 3.8 million head of cattle, on more than 23 million acres of pastureland, place it sixth in the nation for cattle production, and the effects of the livestock loss are expected to ripple through the national economy.
“Hearing from ranchers who lost 30 percent or more of their cattle is not shocking me at this point, which is terrifying,” said South Dakota Stockgrowers Association executive director Silvia Christen. “Those calves were this year’s paycheck. The cows were bred to produce next summer’s paycheck. Producers are really reeling from that.”
The partial shutdown of the federal government has doubled the heartache for ranchers, leaving them to document and dispose of the livestock with little direction and no immediate financial assistance.
“It’s a breaking point because of the stress and the frustration of not being able to get things done,” said Bishop, who lost seven cows and a calf on his 4,200-acre spread south of Rapid City. “You try to make a call or get an answer, and nobody’s home.”
Jamie Crew of the South Dakota Department of Agriculture said the state has no relief programs. The rewrite of the federally funded Farm Bill, which expired Oct. 1, has volleyed back and forth between the Senate and the House for months.
“Unfortunately, it’s just really bad timing,” Crew said.
Timing has little to do with it, said Sue Rausch, who is married to rancher Richard Rausch. They lost 50 to 65 percent of their cattle as well as four horses. Their son also ranches in the area and suffered a similar loss.
“The government is so out of touch with ranchers and farmers,” Sue Rausch said. “If we did that — if anyone did that — we’d be out of business.”
The storm has taken its toll.
“I cry off and on,” Rausch said. “It’s hard to watch your husband and son, everything they’ve worked for, in 36 hours, lose half of it.”
The couple, in their early 60s, planned to retire within the next couple of years.
“This might be a deal breaker,” she added. “It could be sooner.”
This week the ranchers continue to search for their cattle — by foot, four-wheeler, horse and plane. At the top of a ridge, Bishop points to another pair of dead cows, neck deep in a snowdrift, their noses stuck defiantly toward the sky.
Because the storm came so early, many of the ranchers still had their cattle in summer pastures. The cows had yet to grow winter coats, and state veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said they died from a variety of causes, including hypothermia, exposure, drowning, suffocation and collisions with vehicles.
Jim Baker runs a large ranching operation with his brother on Lower Spring Creek. He lost about 10 percent of his cattle and plans to pull more than 50 dead cows out of a dam. Most of the ranchers plan to bury the cows or utilize pits opened by the county.
“It’s too late to fix it,” Baker said. “So you clean up the mess, and you figure out what you’re going to do next.”
Kenny Singpiel has been working cattle on Lower Spring Creek for more than 50 years. The 82-year-old downsized his operation several years ago to a 320-acre “hobby” ranch of about two dozen cattle. None were lost during the storm. He worries about the next generation.
“It’s going to be tough and demanding on the younger guy who doesn’t have money and has borrowed,” he said.
One of the youngest is 31-year-old David Uhrig, owner of Mount Rushmore Angus Ranch. He lost 25 percent of his mature cow herd.
“We were all caught off guard,” he said. “You pick up the pieces, and you move on. God gave us resiliency for a reason.”
That resilience will be needed in the coming year, Christen said.
“This is going to test the management ability of the best and most seasoned ranchers, let alone the younger ones trying to get started,” she said. “We are extremely concerned about the mental health of ranchers — seeing their entire life’s work dead in a ditch.”
Richard Rausch’s parents homesteaded on Lower Spring Creek Road more than six decades ago. Near his home, winter wheat and sunflower fields line rolling hills of prairie grass. Going west, you can see the silhouette of Mount Rushmore. And when the sun goes down, you can hear the yelps of coyotes.
Here, Rausch said, you witness the cycle of life and death.
“Being able to see new life in the spring and care for livestock — it’s hard to put words on that,” he said.
For Bishop, ranching is a way of life that often means rising before the sun and working after it goes down. It means risk — every day of every year — that a disaster could strike and wipe it all out.
It also means small comforts — an Australian shepherd at his side, neighbors who have stepped forward to help, a reliable pickup truck filled with leather gloves and country-music CDs.
For now, he is focused on a calf that has twice seen tragedy. Earlier this year, it lost its mother during a heat wave and was joined with another cow. The pair was out to pasture when the storm came in. The calf survived, but its new mother was dead.
On a recent evening, the calf ambled toward him and latched onto a half-gallon bottle of milk, aggressively sucking as white, foamy drool dripped from its lips.
“We want healthy land and animals and to take care of them the best we can,” he said. “Sometimes the odds are against us. There’s nothing you can do. And that makes you feel pretty helpless.”
When Bishop married his wife, Kerry, he told her there would be no naming animals.
“You get too attached,” he said.
The storm has been a reminder of that original independent streak.
“Do you see how many animals are still alive?” he asked. “No matter how hard Mother Nature tried, she didn’t kill them all, and we’re going to come back.”
He pets the calf before closing the barn door.
He has named her Susan.
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