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Published November 11, 2013, 10:32 AM

SD vet updates blizzard death totals

Officials say the loss of sheep is less than the loss of cattle

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Dustin Oedekoven, South Dakota's state veterinarian, says his office has verified the deaths of 13,977 cattle, 1,257 sheep, 287 horses and 40 bison — more than 15,500 animals — from the early October blizzard that slammed the western Dakotas.

He adds that many producers have yet to report their losses, as they still are sorting them out.

Many of the thousands of cattle that perished in South Dakota, which was hit particularly hard, died of congestive heart failure brought on by stress, Oedekoven says.

Some officials in South Dakota estimate 3,000 to 5,000 sheep were killed, costing ranchers several million dollars.

South Dakota cattle producers, in turn, won’t know the full extent of their losses until spring and any estimates made now are “just guesses,” says Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Stockmen’s Association.

“Nobody knows yet,” Anderson says.

Unofficial estimates of South Dakota cattle losses vary greatly, from 20,000 to 30,000 and even as high as 100,000.

South Dakota had 3.85 million cows and calves on Jan. 1. That ties the state with Iowa for sixth place nationally.

In many cases, South Dakota ranchers aren’t sure if missing cattle are dead or mixed in with neighboring herds, Anderson says.

Even though most of the snow from the blizzard has melted, large snow banks remain, often in remote hard-to-reach areas. Ranchers suspect, but can’t be sure, that dead cattle are buried in the snow, Anderson says

“I know it seems hardly possible (a month after the blizzard) but there still are folks who are trying to assess their losses,” she says.

Records of losses

Ranchers have diligently collected evidence of their losses, part of the so-called third-party verification process. But many producers haven’t yet submitted their records to the Farm Service Agency, Anderson says.

There is no funding for the federal Livestock Indemnity Program, which would compensate ranchers for weather-related losses. Nor has a new farm bill been approved.

Given that, ranchers feel no urgent need to submit their records to the FSA, she says.

Craig Schaunaman, state executive director of the South Dakota FSA, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, tells Agweek that his agency will do all it can to help ranchers who lost livestock.

But lack of funding for the Livestock Indemnity Program limits what FSA can do, he says.

North Dakota had 1.79 million cows and calves on Jan. 1. That ranks the state 19th nationally.

Unofficial estimates put North Dakota losses in the October blizzard at about 1,000 or more.

Julie Ellingson, executive vice president of the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, says she has no good estimate of statewide losses. She doubts a fully reliable estimate will be available until spring.

She commends FSA for doing what it can to help ranchers who lost cattle, even though there’s no funding for the livestock program.

Ellingson and others note that the current House and Senate farm bills both reauthorize the program, though the two bills would provide different levels of funding.

Sheep losses

South Dakota sheep producers will take a multimillion-dollar hit from the early October blizzard, according to estimates provided by Dave Ollila, sheep field specialist with the South Dakota State University Extension Service in Rapid City.

He estimates, based on his conversations with producers in the state, that 3,000 to 4,000 sheep were lost in the blizzard.

Max Matthews, a Bison, S.D., rancher and president of the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association, estimates the losses at 4,000 to 5,000.

Ewes accounted for slightly more than half of the losses, lambs the rest, he says.

Though it’s impossible to make a firm estimate on the economic impact of those deaths, Ollila offers these numbers to give an idea of overall losses:

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