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Published October 14, 2013, 09:52 AM

Blizzard hammers western dakotas

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 55 inches of snow Oct. 4 and 5 on parts of South Dakota.

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 55 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 during the week of Oct. 6, 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 State University Extension in Rapid City. State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven says state officials estimate at least 10,000 to 20,000 head of livestock died in the storm, and some ranchers reported losing up to 50 percent of their herds. But Oedekoven says those estimates will rise as more information is gathered.

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, Olson says.

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

Rapid City, which received more than 20 inches of snow, had daily highs in the 60s and 50s in the week after the blizzard.

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.

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.

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.

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 photographs and dates of the storm, are important, officials say.

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

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

SDSU Extension suggests ranchers record and document the following:

• The number of dead animals.

• Time/labor for processing dead animals.

• Equipment used and amount of time required.

Also, ranchers should make sure the date is set correctly when taking photos or videos, SDSU Extension says.

The winter of 1996 and 1997, which brought a number of blizzards and heavy cattle losses, demonstrates that keeping good records is vital when livestock producers try later to receive federal aid, according to SDSU Extension.

Government shutdown

The federal government shutdown hurts the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ability to respond to the storm losses.

“Producers don’t even have anyone to contact at USDA for assistance in documenting losses,” Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., says in a news release.

Compiling precipitation totals across the state is complicated because federal employees who normally provide that information from some locations are furloughed, Laura Edwards, SDSU Extension climate field specialist, says in a news release. The 23.1 inches of snow that fell in Rapid City set a new October record for the city, she says.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., asked Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to declare Farm Service Agency employees in counties hit by the storm as essential so they can go back to work despite the government shutdown.

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 wind 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 returned to their fields within a few days of the rain, he says.

The rain also affects 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 shut down temporarily because of the weekend rains, but growers generally returned to fields quickly, says Ted Kreiss, marketing and communications director of the East Grand Forks, Minn.-based Northern Plains Potato Growers Association.