SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Many dead cattle were lined up in single file rows after the Oct. 3-5, 2013, winter storm Atlas or the Cattleman’s Blizzard that rocked western South Dakota.
Tens of thousand of cattle and other livestock died in the storm. The associated storm cost for livestock loss and other costs in cities and similar was estimated in the millions.
The storm was so unusual “Just because of the amount of moisture in it,” said Eric Jennings, the president of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association. All that moisture helped create hypoxia in cattle. “They were breathing in so much water vapor it was rinsing the lining of their lungs,” Jennings said. The wet lining made it difficult for lungs to expand. The lungs can’t expand and the cattle “essentially drown because of the water,” Jennings said.
“The livestock had not yet grown thick winter coats so they became hypothermic after first being soaked by the rain, then chilled by the snow and wind,” according to the National Weather Service in Rapid City.
The combination of hypoxia and hypothermia caused cattle to leave shelter because they were confused, Jennings said.
“Cows would die and get covered up by snow,” Jennings said. Once a producer found the first dead cow after the storm, it was easier to find the others because “they were walking in a line…,” Jennings said.
The Cattlemen’s Blizzard covered roughly 28,000 square miles, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said.
A paper from the Louisville university science education said that 55 inches of snow fell in Lawrence County over three days and two feet fell in Rapid City.
Jennings said the storm was extraordinary event. The forecast did not call for snow with so much moisture.
“We knew rain was coming and that there might be wind,” Jennings said.
The rain started on Friday, Oct. 3, and then snow came, Jennings said.
NWS data shows 22 inches fell on Saturday, Oc. 4 near Spearfish and another 25 inches fell on Sunday, Oct. 5. Rapid City got 19 inches on Oct. 3 and another few inches by the end of Oct. 5.
Belle Fourche got 24.0 inches on Oct. 5.
Jennings said when some producers were able to clear a private airplane runway, they learned how disastrous the storm was.
“When they got up in the air, they could see so many dead livestock,” Jennings said.
Dead livestock piled up by fences, waterways and other parts of pastures and fields. Those were the livestock producers could see.
Getting to those dead cattle would be a painstaking process.
“It was so disheartening. There were hundreds of dead cows in pastures,” Jennings said.
Snow fell a few days after the Cattlemen’s Blizzard, which made it even more difficult to reach the dead livestock.
The process of locating dead livestock and disposing of them went on for weeks. “There was a lot of driving through with tractors and chains, and they’d sink in the mud. It was not pleasant work,” Jennings said. Producers were wet and muddy and often, plagued by questions like ‘could they have done?’ more to protect cattle.
But based on the forecast, producers didn’t have reason to follow different protocol, Jennings said.
“It was an ugly deal,” Jennings said of finding and disposing of cattle after the storm.
The USDA and state of South Dakota helped with disposal.
Excavators dug large disposal pits, mostly on public land. The dead cattle were buried in those pits.
In January of 2014, the USDA announced it had contributed “more than $2 million in financial assistance to help bury or dispose of livestock and repair destroyed conservation practices.”
Jennings said producers who were near retirement may have left the industry after Atlas. But, he noted, that many stayed.
Cattle prices were increasing before the October storm. Some producers were able to rebuild their herd as they bought cows in November and December, he said.
“If someone lost half their herd they may have decided to build it back (slower). That could take four to five years,” Jennings said.
The October storm followed dry conditions and two disaster declarations, Jennings said.
Producers were helped by government disaster assistance payments, he said.
Although producers realized Atlas was not the expected forecasted storm, they are more skittish of storms these days, Jennings said.
“In 2020 there was a similar forecast for the first week of October,” Jennings said. Producers who remembered 2013 began pulling cattle into better shelters, he said. They didn’t want to take a chance if the weather turned out to be very different than expectations.