Wouldn't you think that the loss of up to 75,000 head of cattle during a horrific winter blizzard would merit mention on the news? Not only were ranchers and farmers caught unprepared for the sudden storm, but this $7 billion industry is now hamstrung due to the government shutdown.
And you might be wondering why this storm was so much worse and caused so much damage. After all, South Dakota is not immune to winter storms and they have been raising cattle for over a hundred years in those kinds of conditions. What made this storm different?
Well, I received an email from friends who ranch in that part of the country, and they were kind enough to inform the rest of us about what made this storm so devastating. Here's what they had to say:
A number of factors all happened simultaneously to create a situation of very high energy needs and high stress in cattle and other livestock. Any one of the following factors could have an impact by itself, but when all combined, it was simply too much for the animals and they most likely succumbed to hypothermia.
The contributing factors included: Animals were not adapted to winter conditions. Cattle will grow a thicker hair coat in response to shorter days, and cooler temperatures. But temperatures prior to the storm were in the 70°’s. For cattle, this meant they had thin hair coats and little protection from the elements. Snow was preceded by hours of rain. A wet hair coat reduces the “insulation” that the hair and hide provide and increases the rate of heat loss from the body. For example, a cow with a wet hair or summer hair coat has critical temperature of 59°, while one with a dry, heavy winter coat has a critical temperature of 18°. The critical temperature is the temperature at which the animal must increase its metabolism, or burn its own energy, to maintain its body temperature. The further the effective temperature is below the critical temperature, the more energy the animal must use to maintain its body temperature.
Winds in this blizzard were recorded up to 60 mph. Both research and practical experience show what a difference “wind chill” has on effective temperature. The range and pastures that are grazed during summer months are typically “open” – without constructed windbreaks, and usually very few natural windbreaks. With the storm so early in the year, most livestock were still out on summer range and pastures. Thus, animals felt the full intensity of the wind. The hair coat, temperature, moisture and wind combination meant the animals’ energy needs to maintain body temperature were much higher than even during a “normal” winter blizzard.
Coupled with the very high energy needs of the animals was the fact that most of the feed the cattle were currently eating was quite low in energy. Cattle grazing lush green grass makes a beautiful picture, but the reality is that lush, rapidly growing green grass is very high in moisture and low in energy per pound of feed consumed. The unusually large rainfall in September had created this rapidly growing grass in many areas. Under normal weather conditions, cattle were able to consume large quantities of grass to meet and even exceed their energy needs. But under blizzard conditions, it was not possible for them to consume adequate amounts of forage to meet their much higher than normal energy needs.
To try to escape or reduce the harsh wind, cattle will walk with the wind and seek areas of shelter, such as draws and ravines. Walking through heavy, wet and deep snow increased their energy needs even more. The severity of the snow fall also meant that the animals were walking blind, and could easily fall in to gullies, walk into a stock dam or creek, or gather into a fence corner and face crushing and trampling. When you combine the effects of all the above factors, and add exhaustion and the inability to maintain their own body temperature, you have a situation where cattle simply stop and succumb to hypothermia. It’s important to note that all these factors were beyond the control of ranchers, owners, or anyone else.
Cattle that survived the storm most likely have used up all or most of their energy reserves. This means they may need more supplemental feed than is normal for this time of year, particularly if there is added stress from rain and colder temperatures. (Information from article written by Dave Ollilia and Rosie Nold).
And because Congress has yet to pass a new farm bill, which subsidizes agricultural producers, ranchers have nowhere to turn for help. For now, the best farmers and ranchers can do is meticulously document their losses, with detailed photos, for use when and if claims can be processed.
Of course, the most immediate concern is proper disposal of the dead livestock, which state law says must be burned, buried or rendered within 36 hours — for the health not only of surviving herds but also for people.
But the catastrophic effect of this loss will be felt in other ways, too. Not only were tens of thousands of calves killed, but so were thousands more cows that would have delivered calves next year. And the stress of the storm will leave its mark on surviving herds, leaving the remaining cattle vulnerable to ruinous diseases. What's more, most of the diseases have incubation periods of a week or two, so those problems can't yet be assessed.
Yet, with the obvious desolation of valuable beef herds, did you hear much about it on national news? With rising prices at the grocery store, don't you think this is worthy of mention? With the stress on our economy as it is, shouldn't a story that will most likely affect every household be at the top of your list? Shortages in the food supply, plus rising prices, could inflict even more pain upon the middle class. I just thought you should know and try to plan accordingly. This winter could be difficult, in more ways than one.
Nahum 1:7 "The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him."