Friday, October 18, 2013

Cattle Deaths from South Dakota Storm: Why and How it Happened.

I can't believe it's been two weeks since this storm hit, and only now it's starting to affect many people. I personally never realized such devastation--estimates of around 60,000 to 100,000 deaths of livestock reported--until I seen several posts from a few "liked" livestock/farming pages regarding the storm. Went to forums to see if there was any truth to this and found a couple of posts regarding the tragedies.  Nothing reported in the media at the time, apart from the local South Dakota local news.

Just like a drop of water lands in a large pool, the ripple effect started to occur.  A week or so later I discovered Huffington Post finally put up a couple articles on the storm--the first on the actual storm itself and a second about ranchers requesting bred cows to help put their herds back in order.  Today I found one Wordpress ranch-wife blogger express her disappointment to the sort of feedback that the news reports on NBC and CNN received from faithful viewers and commentators.

As an aside, there have been reports of ranchers losing as little as two percent of their herds and others as much as 90 percent. Cattle were often 10 or 20 miles away from where they were before the storm hit, and others were piled up dead--some alive, but died later due to hypothermia and pneumonia--in gullies, coulees and creek bottoms as they tried to walk out the storm. The aftermath, the clean-up job those ranchers and their families had to (and still have to as I write this) go through--just horrendous. But nothing was more horrendous than the comments I read after the articles posted on HP. (I can't imagine what kind of comments were left on the CNN/NBC news sites, and I won't dare look there--the comments on Huff Post were bad enough!)

Here's a tidbit of advice for you who like to read stories like this: If you don't want to find yourself getting angry, sad, confused and dumbfounded at the kind of bull-crap people can come up with, don't read the comments section. That is, unless you've got a thick hide and know you can hold your own enough that you feel confident in shooting down the various accusations, condemnations and very unhelpful, often outrageous suggestions/assumptions, feel free to read them and join the discussion.

No doubt everyone is entitled to their own opinions and love to offer some form of help by expressing their views on what should have been done, what can be done and what should be done in the future. Unfortunately, most of such comments/suggestions seem unhelpful to say the least. This is very much apparent when you get a large group of people who think they know everything about farming and ranching but know nothing, based on their comments and suggestions, about how it's really done in S.D. From there you get two groups of people: those who think they know how cattle should be raised in S.D who are farmers/ranchers/pet owners themselves but know nothing about the climate and terrain of S.D (let's call these folks Group 1A), and those who think that all ranchers are evil, cruel and inhumane and care only about the money they get in their pockets, clamouring that if cattle never existed this would have never happened (Group 1B).

If you've ever paid attention to the side panel of this blog you can clearly see I myself am not from South Dakota.  As a matter of fact I've never been to South Dakota in my life, so you may think that I may be a part of Group A due to large expanses in distance and differences in climate/terrain. I'm not sorry to say this, but I'm part of a much smaller group: Group 2. Group 2 comprises of those folks who may not live in South Dakota or have ever worked there, but fully understands what really happened and why so many animals died--and why certain suggestions are unhelpful and assumptions clearly false. (Then you get Group 3 who are the producers from South Dakota that experienced Atlas--the South Dakota storm--first-hand.)  I wish to extend some explanations of my own that may reflect those that a few other bloggers--both on Wordpress and Blogger--wished to spread to those who need a bit of an education on the situation that unfolded two weeks ago.

Why Did Thousands of Cattle Die in this Blizzard?

Two things were against these animals when the blizzard hit:
1) Cattle had not filled out their winter coats yet, and
2) Cold, wet rain soaked the animals through before the snows came.
This created the "perfect storm" for hypothermia to set in.

Several other factors were attributed to such high losses:
1) The storm was not predicted to have been as bad as it turned out to be. This is always the case with any storm, regardless if it's a hurricane, a monsoon, a supercell with potential to produce an F5 tornado, anything.  These storms often show signs of impending doom mere hours, if not minutes, before they hit.  That is not nearly enough time for a South Dakota rancher to react to hope to save their livestock.
2) The storm that came through came at a time when ranchers didn't have enough time to react and save their animals.  It takes days to simply round up a few thousand head of cattle, and even a couple more days just to herd them to winter pasture. Ranchers did not have that amount of time to act, particularly due to 1) and because weather is always so very unpredictable.  Nobody can predict the future weeks ahead of time, and no rancher has a crystal ball to look into to see if there's going to be a terrible storm that will hit killing off 90 percent of their herd.
3) With rain, you get mud, and lots of it. Cattle would've gotten stuck in gullies and creek beds and died of hypothermia or simply drowned in the muddy waters.
4) Strong winds and blinding snow forced cattle to move where the wind took them, whether it was into hidden creek beds, gullies or cliff edges, or into fencelines were they were caught and entangled. Snow drifts piled up so high and so fast that cattle didn't have time to even think or react to get out, so they ended up getting buried and suffocated by the snow.

Why were Cattle not Offered any Shelter, Why were they not herded into Barns or Sheds?

As mentioned above, there was simply not enough time to get them home.

Secondly, these cattle are range cattle and have never seen the inside of a barn or shed in their entire lives.  They never have, and never will.  With the number of cattle the average South Dakota rancher raises (which is up near over 1000 head), barns are uneconomical, inefficient, costly to build, impractical, and will never be large enough to hold the number of animals that are raised at one time.

Sheds would become death-traps in themselves.  With a blizzard, often you get snow that blows from everywhere and anywhere, and snow will build up into drifts even in a shed.  Large drifts, which built up in such a fast rate of time with the amount of snow S.D received and the high winds that came with it, are death traps for cattle who cannot get out in the open fast enough. And as mentioned above with barns, no sheds are large enough to hold a large number of cattle and they are simply impractical and uneconomical to own in such operations as those in S.D.  Cattle are not confined to a 20 acre paddock, herds are often spread out in 80 to 300 acre pastures that are simply too large and too expansive for cattle to get to a shed on time. In the normal sort of storms that occur in S.D, the various coulees, buttes, gullies, valleys and escarpments provide sufficient shelter for cattle to weather such storms.

Why were Ranchers so Unprepared? They Should've Known this was Coming.

Again, it was all due to the unforeseen severity that this storm came with.  The forecast for this storm was for only 10 to 15 inches of snow, something which isn't totally unheard of in that part of the country, even though it was a little early, and something which those cattle could handle without much stress. A day or two before the storm hit, the forecast increased to double that amount.  When the storm actually hit, two inches of rain fell in most areas (some received more), coupled with +30 inches of snow (a few areas received four feet), along with hurricane-force winds. So it's without a doubt that the ranchers knew what was coming and were prepared for it, they just didn't know what they were in for--which is not surprising, if you equate Atlas to the EF5 tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri in 2011 and what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans. Nobody knew those storms were going to be as bad as they turned out to be.

Couldn't Ranchers Try to Save their Herds?

As I mentioned before, no-one knew that this storm was going to be so bad as it was. By the time they realized that was the case they couldn't even get out of their homes: they had to dig themselves out after it stopped snowing and go assess the damage and gather up their animals as soon as they could.

Ranchers get Subsidies and Welfare Cheques anyway so why should they care? 

Ranchers do not get any sort of subsidy nor price-supporting cheque from the government at all. They're in this themselves without any sort of government hand-out given to them--not even handouts from any taxpayers.  Ranchers are also taxpayers themselves, so your tax dollars don't even go into the raising of beef cattle.

They're Rich with them Getting $1.35 per head Grazing on Public Gand and get like $1000 a head Every time they Sell their Cows. Certainly seems like they only care About the Money they Get.

This is not true at all.  Many ranchers don't even graze on public lands--they have a large enough enterprise to look after that they don't need to ship their cattle to graze on state or federal lands or even community pastures. If they do, the amount of money they get from either sale day (which occurs once ever 365 days of the year) or from grazing public lands--if they ever do such a thing--is barely enough to cover their expenses, if at all.

See, the money they get--which, in accounting terms, is defined as income--is not straight net nor gross profit.  Expenses such as feed purchases, fertilizer, loan payments, vet bills, machinery costs, fencing supplies, fuel, income taxes, insurance on vehicles and buildings, health insurance for themselves and their families, insurance on cattle (IF they even have it), labour costs (including worker's compensation and salaries), trucking costs, and many others, all add up and often result in a net loss for the average rancher.  That means no profit, in-the-red, no hopes of getting rich at all. Only one pay-cheque a year--just one, no such thing as a monthly pay-cheque like the average white-collar/blue-collar worker gets is enough just to cover all those expenses.  Barely enough is left to cover costs for food, clothing, and gas to get to town and back.

Most ranchers need to take out an operating loan every year to help pay off such expenses.  And even then they hope to have enough to pay the bank back on that loan, let alone cover costs of replacing equipment or machinery and purchase new supplies for the year.  Occasionally they get years where they get in the black, sometimes they break-even, but many others they find themselves in the red. Most ranching families have to find income from elsewhere to help cover the costs--from revenue generated by having one or more oil and gas wells on their land, to "off-farm" jobs, other enterprises or even land sales. Some are lucky enough to have enough money to be considered "rich ranchers", but many others are not so lucky. Hence, richness in terms of monetary gain is merely the exception, never the rule.

As such, you will be extremely hard-pressed to find that all ranchers and cattlemen alike have the same amount of money as Bill Gates on an annual basis.  Even those that are lucky enough to win the lottery will never squirrel away the money for themselves--what doesn't go to the IRS will go into the ranch and into paying off any debt that has accumulated.  What is left over maybe enough to fix up the house or buy a better truck, if that.

With that many cattle lost, it seems to me that S.D has some bad ranchers that don't care about their animals.  Most producers don't even care about their animals anyway, just the money they get.

Let me put it this way: Ranchers wouldn't be ranching if they really didn't care about their animals.  If you stop and think about it, all that money goes into caring for and raising those animals. All that labour, that hard work goes into making sure all animals--from the main cattle herd to horses, dogs, cats and other few farm animals that may be found on the ranch--are healthy, happy, comfortable, safe, and treated in the most humane ways as possible.  The well-being of those cattle is what the rancher lives off of, and is what leads to that 10 percent satisfaction--out of the 90 percent of blood, sweat and tears--that they get at the end of the day.

From what I was hinting to you above, I hope by know that you understand that ranching and raising cattle is more of a way of life than a business venture.  Yes it's still business, and a ranch does operate as a business just like the local diner does or a mercantile store does, but with such small profit margins, it's impossible to be in it for just the money. When you understand that it's a way of life, and those cattle are and were those South Dakota rancher's life work, only then can you understand why it was--is--so hard for those ranchers to see all those cattle gone in one fell swoop.

If Cattle never Existed and People Never ate Meat, This Would Never have Happened! 

If the grassland plains were not so directly affected nor dependent on grazing animals such as cattle, then this would not have happened.  If humans were well and truly herbivores, then this would never have happened.  Agriculture would never have happened, cities would never have happened, the boom in the human population over the last 20 years would never have happened, and such storms, blamed to be the result of climate change or global warming, would also never have happened.

Grasslands need grazing animals, like cattle, to survive and thrive.  South Dakota is not forested by any means like in New York or South Carolina, not swampland like Florida, nor is it of boreal forest like northern Ontario. It is mostly grassland, native prairie, which can only survive and retain and maintain its ecological health and biodiversity if the grazing species--such as cattle, sheep, horses or bison--are there to create the optimum grazing pressure needed.

If cattle ceased to exist, if any or all grazing animals ceased to exist or became so few their populations have no impact on the plant ecosystem, the grassland ecosystem would change for the worse: you could say that it would be come ecologically and environmentally devastated to the point that it would take many years--decades, even--to fix. Causing mass extinction to the Bos primigenius species--or any domesticated species dependent on our existence and us on theirs for meat, milk, eggs, fibre, pharmaceuticals and many other uses, which will undoubtedly result if the human population abstained itself from consuming animal products of any kind--is just asking for trouble. Such trouble will come in a way that will be unprecedented by those who are not fully aware just what impact these animals have on the Earth's natural grassland ecosystems.

There are many other comments that have been made in regards to this tragedy, but I felt I needed to address the most astounding--the most commonly seen, that is--comments and questions that have aroused among many misinformed and misunderstanding of this sad and terrible situation.  If you wish to see more or read more about this, head over to Google and type in "South Dakota Atlas storm" or visit these blogs:

Pretty Work
Adventures of Dairy Carrie
Double H Photography
Agriculture Proud

Hopefully this blog has allowed you to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for what has happened and what these ranchers have had to go through like I have. Such a terrible tragedy deserves a level of understanding that can only be obtained by the facts, not by assumptions. I do hope that I have delivered such to my capabilities.


Anonymous said...

Those ranchers knew about the storm days ahead of time and did nothing to move the cattle to winter pastures. It was lazy and irresponsible. Not only was the storm in the weather report but there are Indians in the area that can tell you about storms. I have a friend in that area, He listened and put out the effort to save his animals. I feel bad for the cattle but not the ranchers

Anonymous said...

Hello Friend,

Nice blog! Thought I'd use it to let you know that I'll no longer be posting on FluffPost. Don't believe in facilitating corporate data mining so I don't have a Facebook account, nor have I found a good reason to pay for a cellphone. I will be posting on The Guardian. Also Alternet, Grist and Mother Jones. (A Disqus account will allow you to post on all three sites.) Hope to see you there. Or, if you just want to say howdy, you can reach me at

Until we meet again... ;-)

Vicki aka FaunaAndFlora

WildRoseBeef said...

Anonymous (the person who posted the first comment to this post):

I keep seeing this over and over again and it appears that you have not read what I wrote above. So I will reiterate: They did know it was coming, they didn't know that it was going to be as bad as it was. You can call them "lazy" and "irresponsible" all you want but you can't deny that level of truth about the umpredictability of the weather that I'm sure you've seen a time or two if you've worked and lived on a farm or ranch before.

As they say, bad things happen and there's not a thing can be done about it. And blame certainly doesn't help matters either!