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Published October 21, 2013, 10:12 AM

Sinking in

Richard Papousek says the impact of the early Oct. 4 blizzard on his cattle ranch in Pennington County, S.D., still hasn’t been completely realized.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

QUINN, S.D. — Richard Papousek says the impact of the early Oct. 4 blizzard on his cattle ranch in Pennington County, S.D., still hasn’t been completely realized. It’s been slow to sink in.

Papousek ranches with his wife, Lorayna, who works with the farm and ranch, but also is a school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. Besides the cattle, they raise wheat, corn and millet.

“I didn’t think that storm was that bad when it was going on,” Papousek says, remembering the blizzard that ran Oct. 3 to 5 and blasted western South Dakota, and southwest North Dakota. “You could see quite a ways during the storm, but that snow was so wet — just heavy, heavy wet snow.”

Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist, doesn’t think the region ever had a blizzard “of this intensity this early in the season. Usually it’s well into November before we get one this bad,” he says. “This was unusually early with unusually large amounts of snow.”

Some areas in the Dakotas received nearly as much snow in one day as they normally receive in an entire winter, he says. He blames a weather system in which southerly flow carrying moisture collided with a northerly flow bearing cold.

“This system was just so unusual,” he says. “There were just incredible snowfall totals.”

Papousek’s pastures are in three general locations. He typically runs about 450 head of mother cows. They also handle 350 to 500 head of yearlings a year, depending on the availability of pasture. The standard plan is to sell bred heifers in Philip every January. This fall, they were holding about 100 of their own bred heifers as replacements to rebuild the herd. They had about 230 bred heifers to sell.

The day before the blizzard, they’d taken precautions, moving animals into protected areas, but to no avail.

“Now we have 137 of them left,” Papousek says.

Sickening reality

The tragedy began to sink in hard on Oct. 5 and 6 when Papousek finally got to a set of yearlings south of Quinn and they had all perished.

They had become disoriented in the snow, and drifted about five miles south to Interstate Highway 90 and up to three miles east. Some crossed Interstate 90.

“You get down there and see that and you almost get sick to your stomach — I did anyhow.” There were 75 dead yearlings along I-90.

Even more grisly was a second herd on pasture along the famous “wall of the Badlands,” near the town of Wall. Now it’s death valley — ravines filled with the carcasses of dozens of his cows.

They’d been placed on the lowlands, presumably protected by the wall. But the animals found a way up a ravine and onto the plateau above, and then got lost, disoriented, and wandered back over to the precipice to their death.

Luckily, one had survived and a farm employee, Mike Luedeman, found and saved it. It was a rare positive outcome.

Helping hands

The emotional impact is blatant. Papousek says the cattle are kind of like family. They’re not children, of course, but the rancher does everything he can to keep them alive and prospering.

“They’re your livelihood; you’ve got to treat them good,” he says.

Financially, the storm has been devastating.

“I told my wife that at 60 years old, I’m not so sure I want to rebuild this thing. I was thinking about maybe retiring instead of working for the rest of my living days.”

Neighbors Troy and Dawn Richter often have 300 to 320 pregnant mother cows this time of year. The storm probably reduced the herd by 100 head. Last year, the mother cows were worth about $1,500 to $1,800, but this year, Troy thinks they could go up to $2,200 or more because of strong calf prices. Some ranchers might look out of state for calves to rebuild herds.

Richter, 45, figures the storm cost his family $300,000 to $350,000.

One of the poignant aspects of the situation is how it brings out the best in people.

Richter says he’s appreciated the help from friends and neighbors.

“We’ve been awful fortunate to have some awful good neighbors,” he says. “There hasn’t been a day yet that I haven’t been on the phone with all of them, once or twice a day, wondering who can help who where. That’s what’ll get a person through a deal like this — your friends and your neighbors.”

The Richters sold calves in Philip. The calves averaged 560 pounds and brought $1.88 per pound — an excellent price. He says his family will be meeting soon to figure out the next step, financially. The Richters have five children, including two in college at South Dakota State University in Brookings, so there are lots of things to figure out.

Struggling together

The Papouseks have a lot invested in their herd, and in the area. The family has lived here since 1949. Papousek and a brother, Duane, split a partnership about 15 years ago. Richard started his current herd of Angus. He prefers the lighter, 1,200-pound cows, in part because they eat less grass in the dry years.

Richard has a stepson, Evan, who teaches agriculture in Wagner, S.D. He’s helped during the crisis and at other times, but has asthma and isn’t likely to farm full-time. Daughter, Lissa, is a junior in college in Chadron, Neb., and would like to teach school and run the ranch on the side someday.

On Oct. 15, Papousek says he should be weaning calves now, but it’s so muddy he’s not doing it for fear of pneumonia and because of the inconvenience of hauling in feed.

“I suppose we’re going to have to wait until it freezes up to bring in the cattle to the lots and feed them,” he says.

Instead, he was helping Richter haul home some stray cows that had been accumulated at the Papousek place on Oct. 9, but couldn’t immediately be moved, in part because of high water near the Richter place.

Papousek says the losses are hard to figure out.

“I’m pretty sure they ‘drowned’ standing up,” he says of his cattle, but these insurance companies “do not want to define drowning,” Papousek says. “They think drowning happens in a dam. I’ve talked to professionals, veterinarians that say that isn’t necessarily the definition of drowning.” He’s talking with lawyers, but isn’t sure how it’ll end.

“I was planning on kind of cutting back in about five years, not being in the center of a refinance deal,” Papousek says, adding that he’d been planning on doing more hunting and fishing. He has a boat at Pierre, on the Missouri River. Other than breaking a leg and ankle in a fall from a ladder in March 2012, he’s in good health.

But the future is uncertain. The only bright side for sure is that the extra moisture this year will mean the surviving cattle will eat well in the spring.

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