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Published May 10, 2011, 10:04 AM

Late-season blizzard hurts ranchers

Ranchers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana are counting up their losses after one of the worst late-season blizzards in recent memory.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Ranchers in western North Dakota and eastern Montana are counting up their losses after one of the worst late-season blizzards in recent memory.

“It’s a mess,” says Calli Thorne, North Dakota State University Extension Service agent in McKenzie County, one of the hardest-hit areas.

The April 30 to May 1 blizzard brought winds of 60 miles-an-hour and dumped more than a foot of wet, heavy snow in some areas. The storm knocked down hundreds of utility poles and left some areas without power for several days.

No county yet of livestock losses

It’s too early to estimate how many cattle have died, or will die, says Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.

But she’s heard reports of dead cattle from a number of producers, particularly in the northwestern part of the state.

Tim Fine, Montana State University Extension Service agent in Richland Country, in northeastern Montana, also says he’s getting reports of dead livestock.

The past few winters generally have been long and hard, causing some cattle producers to start calving later in hopes of avoiding the worst weather, Ellingson says.

That strategy didn’t help this year, with the later calving even making some livestock more vulnerable to the late-season blizzard.

The high winds and heavy snows caused some cattle to move miles away from where they were supposed to be, says Steve Brooks, a Bowman, N.D., cattle producer.

Even days after the blizzard, some producers were working to locate missing cattle and reunite calves and their mothers, he says.

He says he remembers equally bad blizzards in 2009 and 1997, but none that came as late in the spring as the most recent storm.

In some areas, the wet snow was preceded by substantial rain. For example, Watford City, N.D., received about 1.35 inches of rain and 11.2 inches of snow, Thorne says.

All the moisture has put calves at greater risk of pneumonia and scours, or calf diarrhea, officials say.

Warm, dry weather would help to reduce the risk, but forecasts in early May didn’t look favorable, Brooks said.

Federal indemnity program

Ranchers’ first duty is caring for their animals, but producers also need to take steps to qualify for the federal livestock indemnity program, Ellingson says,

The program, authorized by the last farm bill, provides benefits to producers for livestock deaths in “excess of normal mortality caused by adverse weather,” including blizzards, according to information from the Farm Service Agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Key aspects of the program:

- Disaster declaration isn’t required to be eligible.

- A producer must have owned the livestock on the day of death.

- Producers who suffer losses must submit documentation to the FSA within 30 days of when the loss occurred. Allowable documentation includes photos with a date.

-n USDA bases the program’s national payment rate on 75 percent of the average fair market value of the livestock.

Ranchers in Williams County in North Dakota were beginning to contact their local FSA office about the program a few days after the blizzard, says Corey Paryzek, FSA county director.

“It was a doozy,” he says of the blizzard.

He stresses the program’s 30-day time limit and need for documentation.

People unfamiliar with raising livestock may not realize that the blizzard impacted ranchers emotionally as well as financially and physically, Ellingson says.

“You put your heart and soul into this,” she says.