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.”