Photograph from KOTA-TV/Pool/AP

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Estimates of cattle losses are rising as the state digs out.

Photograph from KOTA-TV/Pool/AP

Why Did South Dakota Snowstorm Kill So Many Cattle?

Early October blizzard took a devastating toll on the state's cattle ranchers.

Rancher Marvin Jobgen has weathered many storms in his 40 years in business, but he's never lost as many cattle as he did during the record-setting winter storm Atlas. A third of his cows, about 100, and 15 percent of his calves died. Two weeks after the October 4 blizzard, livestock producers in western South Dakota are still counting their losses and burying would-be profits in bone pits.

The storm slammed into the region after days with temperatures in the 70s and 80s, catching producers and cattle unprepared. State veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven says so far 7,500 cattle have been reported dead, but that number will grow because right now "reporting isn't high on everybody's mind."

The storm was especially deadly for cattle partly because the animals had not yet grown their winter coats and were grazing in summer pastures rather than more protected winter pastures. In addition, the ground hadn't frozen, so cattle that sought protection in low-lying areas became stuck in mud. Rain soaked the cattle; then winds up to 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour and heavy snow froze them.

Jobgen says he found some of his cows dead behind protective barriers against the wind where there wasn't even an inch of snow. But the strain that the cold and snow placed on the animals' heart and lungs, and the resulting buildup of fluids, possibly caused many of the deaths.

Freak Storm

Atlas dumped three feet of snow in some parts of the Black Hills. "It was a monster blizzard. There's no doubt about that," says Matthew Bunkers, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Rapid City. The previous October record snowfall in South Dakota was fewer than ten inches, about a century ago. Bunkers says such storms are rare but not unheard of, like the monster storm that blanketed nearby North Dakota with snow in early October 2008.

Some scientists point to the increasing rate of such rare weather events worldwide as a sign of climate change and warn that this is the new normal. But Bunkers says locally they're not seeing "any evidence that they're becoming more frequent or more severe."

Some blame inaccurate storm predictions for the lack of preparedness. But Bunkers says the NWS issued a blizzard warning a full 24 hours before it started snowing. After the warnings, Jobgen moved some of his cattle into pastures where his herd has weathered previous storms without incident. He wasn't too concerned until he started finding dead cattle the day after the storm.

Widespread Losses

"It's going to be a huge economic hit," says Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. Ranchers were preparing for market; calves would have brought up to $1,000 each. Each cow will cost about $2,000 to replace, and ranchers will have more work ahead to breed cows that will do well on their land and produce the kinds of beef they bring to market, a process that can take years. Jobgen spent 30 years establishing the genetics in his herd. Some producers lost their entire herds and will have to start from scratch.

South Dakota is no stranger to winter storms, and the industry has experienced livestock losses before. However, "to have such huge, widespread losses and devastation is really something that historically not a lot of people have ever seen before," Christen says. She expects some operations will never recover.

Jobgen is 55 and says he plans to rebuild his herd, though he predicts it will take 10 to 15 years to do so. But he's concerned about younger livestock ranchers who have more loans and less established herds. "Because in 20 years they should be in the situation I'm in," he says.

"If South Dakota loses a whole generation of young [ranchers] because of one night of snow, that'd be tragic."