News: Tens of thousands of cattle, many horses dead following South Dakota blizzard

With government shutdown coverage largely dominating the news, Lorraine Jackson reports on a story that slipped through the cracks.

Top photo:

From Lorraine:

Horsemen and cattle ranchers in South Dakota were blindsided by an early blizzard last weekend, Winter Storm Atlas, and are now suffering the devastating aftermath. There are speculations that more than 50,000 cattle, sheep, and horses have died, but the South Dakota Department of Agriculture insists that it is far too premature to even ballpark a number.

According to a Wall Street Journal report on Tuesday, “South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch, citing estimates from industry groups, said as much as 5% of the state’s 3.85 million cattle may have been killed, though he said the total death count may not be known until the spring.” There are some ranchers reporting they lost more than half of their total cattle herd, particularly calves and pregnant cows. Cattle in South Dakota is a $7 billion industry and a critical component of the economy.


Among the losses to horsemen: Alicia Heathershaw of Wall, SD states that 10 of her family's 13 horses died, and PRCA champion J.B. Lord lost one of his best roping horses, 21-year-old Baywatch, in a complete whiteout at his property. “He was part of the family,” he said. “You get pretty attached to them after awhile.” (Source: Bismark Tribute)

Wild horses at the famed Black Hills Sanctuary are reported to be safe and in good health.

In the aftermath of such an event, horses and livestock that survived the storm will still be vulnerable to illness and death, according to the South Dakota State University Extension Office. Cortisol deficiencies, respiratory disease and weakness, dehydration, and colic are all possible issues long-term.

The state of affairs in Washington has not only left a gaping hole in federal emergency response, disaster funding, and the passage of the the major Omnibus Farm Bill, but it has also dominated the news cycle and left most Americans unaware of the disaster to the north. The burden of loss is further complicated due to regulations that require dead livestock to be buried or otherwise destroyed within 36 hours in order to prevent disease or contamination, yet a shortage of appropriate authorities are delaying the documentation of livestock losses needed for insurance purposes.

Dead Cow post blizzard in SD courtesy of SD  Dept of Ag

Photo courtesy of the South Dakota Department of Agriculture

In addition to managing the dead, ranchers are still looking for what might still be alive. Hurricane-speed wind gusts created massive snow drifts that debilitated miles of fences, and in the whiteout conditions many herds became disoriented, separated and wandered into unknown territory. Most ranchers are fully devoting their time to finding the living livestock, and hoping to prevent further losses.

Social networking has been critical to the recovery, particularly Facebook. A new page was formed this week called the South Dakota Cattle Locator, where missing and found livestock are being posted hourly, as well as offers from around the country to help herd or transport cattle for anyone who needs it. The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association and South Dakota Department of Agriculture also have plenty of resources for those managing their losses.

Farmers, horsemen and ranchers are tough as nails, and know how to push through adversity. But for even the mightiest of third and fourth generation family cattle operations in South Dakota, it will require everything they've got, everything they can borrow, and everything that's offered to them by the greater agricultural community.

If you would like to donate to the ranchers and horseman in South Dakota, you can do so through and search “Rancher Relief Fund.”



LOVE HORSE NATION? “Like” us on Facebook for all the latest news, commentary and ridiculousness!



Leave a Comment