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Published October 07, 2013, 02:27 PM

Blizzard hammers western Dakotas

Ranchers urged to document losses.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Shane Kolb, a 50-year-old Meadow, S.D., rancher, has seen plenty of blizzards during a lifetime on the Northern Plains. But he’s never endured a storm as severe and as early as the one that dumped as much as 43.5 inches of snow Oct. 4 and 5 on parts of South Dakota.

“This was bad,” says Kolb, president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. He’s heard reports that some cattle producers in the state lost 25 to 30 percent of their herds in the storm, which included heavy winds.

Travel remained difficult and some areas were still without power on Monday morning, complicating efforts to reach livestock and to determine the extent of losses, he says.

It’s too early to have a good handle on overall losses, says Ken Olson, beef specialist with South Dakota Extension in Rapid City.

Nonetheless, the storm clearly did major damage. Because it came so early, many cattle are still in summer pastures that offer little protection against bad weather, he says.

The snow is expected to melt quickly, which will cause flooding and lead to more problems, he says.

For instance, Rapid City, which received more than 20 inches of snow, is expected to have daily highs in the 60s and 50s and daily lows in the 40s and high 30s during the next few days.

Some ranchers in southwest North Dakota also lost cattle, although the losses don’t appear as severe as those in South Dakota, says Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association.

Some cattle were grazing on harvested fields around which electric fencing was installed. The storm knocked out electricity, allowing the cattle to scatter, she says.

Warmer weather later this week should melt the snow and give cattle renewed access to grass, she says.

The snowstorm continues what’s been an unusual year, Kolb notes.

Drought was a major concern for South Dakota ranchers when the growing season began. Unusually heavy spring rains, however, alleviated drought.

“Now we have this storm. It’s been a goofy year,” he says.

Document losses

Ranchers who lost cattle should carefully document their losses, Ellingson says.

Currently, there is no funding for the federal livestock indemnity program, which provides aid for storm-related livestock deaths. But the program remains in existence and funding could be restored, so producers should practice proper documentation, she says.

Detailed, accurate records, including include photographs and dates of storm, are important, officials say.

Generally, it’s best to have losses verified by a third party, something that travel problems in South Dakota are making difficult, Olson says.

He recommends that ranchers with dead cattle take photographs that provide as many details as possible.

The federal government shutdown hurts the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ability to respond the storm losses, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., says in a news release.

“Producers don’t even have anyone to contact at USDA for assistance in documenting losses,” he says.

Southeast Montana generally avoided the heavy snows that hit southwest North Dakota and northwest South Dakota, says Elin Westover, Baker, Mont.-based extension agent for Fallon and Carter counties.

“We know we’re lucky,” she says.

Impact on crops

Virtually all of the small grains in southwest North Dakota’s Hettinger County are in the bin, with corn and sunflowers still to be harvested, says Duaine Marxen, county agent.

His area’s good-looking corn crop, which was planted early, “took it well,” he says of the blizzard.

Sunflowers will suffer, however. They were planted late and didn’t develop the strong root system that would have helped them withstand the blizzard’s winds and snow, Marxen says.

So far, livestock losses in his county don’t appear too bad, he says.

The weekend storm produced rain in the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota. Much of the area received half an inch to 2 inches, according to reports.

There were reports of 4 inches of rain in the Jamestown, N.D., area. But Richard Gelding, manager of Gavilion Grain in Jamestown, says heavy rains were localized and that total precipitation of 1½ to 3 inches was typical.

Farmers in the Jamestown area generally expect to be back in the fields on Tuesday, he says.

The rains also affect area potato growers. A wet spring delayed planting, so many producers are still harvesting their crop.

Some potato growers in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota will be shut down temporarily because of the weekend rains, but major, widespread delays aren’t expected, says Ted Kreiss, marketing and communications director of the East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.