Ranchers in western South Dakota continue the gruesome job of picking up livestock killed in the recent blizzard. Early estimates put the death toll on cattle in the tens of thousands.
For Box Elder rancher Monty Williams, that means using a tractor that normally hauls livestock feed to carry cattle killed in last week’s blizzard. Williams figures he’s lost at least 100 himself. But he’s happy for those that survived.
"A lot of guys were losing everything - cows, calves, you name it," Williams said.
In addition to cleaning up carcasses, ranchers across western South Dakota are rounding up and sorting cattle. The animals mixed with other herds as they drifted miles away in the strong winds and snow.
"We pretty much found what's alive by this time," Williams said. "What's left now is not alive."
The dead are being found in a wide swath of the storm's path, stretching from the Wyoming line east for about 100 miles.
“One rather morbid story was that they could simply find their cattle by following the trail of dead carcasses,” SDSU extension beef specialist Ken Olson said. "It's devastating. I've had some tearful conversations. They're having a hard time. Some of them know that it's going to put them out of business. It's very hard."
It’s important that ranchers carefully document their losses. That could be essential if a government assistance program is put in place.
“We don’t know yet what a disaster program would look like, but we hope there will be one,” Olson said. “What we know from past disaster programs is the importance of documentation.”
Olson considers the possibility of federal help with both hope and skepticism. He said he and other ranchers need the help to stay in business. But the actions of elected officials in Washington, D.C. in creating a budget impasse that has shut down much of the federal government makes him wonder.
“I don’t know, I’m not that optimistic at this point with the government shutdown, either,” Olson said.
Olson says the impacts of the storm are magnified because ranchers had already suffered through a drought that reduced the size of their herds, and also their bottom line. But the damage caused by this storm goes far beyond economics. It hurts these ranch families on a deeply personal level.
“It's personal. Yup, it's personal,” Williams said.
He and other ranchers feel their losses one by one as they pick up the scattered carcasses. Some will be processed for byproducts, other buried or burned.
It's a hard chore for ranchers across the region. And it's only beginning.