South Dakota storm’s softball-sized hail pummeled crops, decimated wildlife
Bryan and Bryce Sombke, who promote a 500-acre natural bird hunting and gun dog enterprise near Conde, South Dakota, and help on the family’s 2,000-acre farm, were among those hit in an unusual Aug. 28, 2021, hail storm. The storm brought high winds and softball-sized hail, and killed deer and decimated the bird population, as well as flattening 7- to 8-foot-tall corn and Conservation Reserve Program lands.
CONDE, South Dakota — The storm on Aug. 28, 2021, changed everything for Bryan and Bryce Sombke’s wildlife and hunting farm operation east of Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Their Coteau View Hunts and Kennels was dead center for a hail storm that brought baseball-sized hail across northeast South Dakota. The worst of the baseball-sized hail went in a 2½-mile wide swath through northern South Dakota — from south of Ipswich to Summit.
Officially, the National Weather Service called it a “supercell” with tennis- to baseball-size stones. Actually, the agency said the area of 1-inch diameter hail or greater ran 225 miles, stretching from Lake Oahe to central Minnesota. The storm lasted six hours, from 2:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. The average width of the severe hail was around 6 miles to 7 miles, the agency said, with the peak around 11 miles wide.
Winds were clocked at 50 mph to 70 mph. Observers said the storm was similar timing for a 1984 storm that toppled a television antenna and a 2018 storm in that brought 90 mph wind gusts. But this one was worse.
The ‘Ring alarms’
“It’s humbling, to say the least,” said Bryan Sombke, who runs the operation with his look-alike twin, Bryce, 34. The Sombkes help their older brother, Brett, and their father, Doug, who operate a 2,000-acre grain and livestock farm. Doug also is president of the South Dakota Farmers Union.
In 2008, the twins launched Coteau View Hunts on a nearby 500-acre farm. They focus on establishing wildlife-friendly habitat and Conservation Reserve Program grass. They guide pheasant and waterfowl hunts, both on the wildlife land and the family farm. They also train and breed “pointing Labrador” dogs — labs selected for the natural instinct to “point” rather than “flush” birds. The pheasant hunts account for about 40% of their business, while the dogs are about 60%.
“We farm for the birds, mainly we use that land for the birds,” Bryan said. They raise corn and sorghum food plots along roosting areas, tree rows. “It’s maybe 50% ag land,” he said.
When the storm came through, the young Sombke men were three hours away at Freeman, South Dakota, for a dove hunt test. Freeman is about 50 miles west and south of Sioux Falls.
“Early in the morning we woke up to our ‘Ring cameras’ going off,” Bryan said, referring to the popular security system. The alarms were designed to notify them of break-ins on buildings and vehicles back home.
For about 20 minutes the alarms continued to go off because the hail kept hitting them.
“We’d silence them, and it’d come right back on again,” he said. It was the first hint that “something extraordinary” had happened.
“We had no idea the (storm) system was coming, otherwise we’d have put the vehicles away,” Bryan said. “It was something you read about, not something that happens to you.”
Back home, their father, Doug, surveyed the damage about two hours later.
When they got home, they found that only a half-section of sorghum/CRP that was spared.
About 200 acres of corn had been standing about 7 to 8 feet tall and now is about 2 feet. Some ears shelled out. On a Sept. 17, 2021, tour, “volunteer” corn was coming up in the rows.
Young, tender trees will need to be replanted — primarily plum and Russian olive.
The CRP grass that stood 4 to 5 tall prior to the storm was “mulched up,” looking like a rotary mower had gone through it.
“It’s almost thatched the whole surface of the ground,” Bryan said.
“Every square inch has a baseball-sized divot,” Bryan said.
The Sombkes found holes punched through trailers, between baseball and softball size.
“Perfect circles, right through aluminum trailers,” he said. Car windshields were shattered, straight through the cowling on the windshields. Dents all over. Everything needs a new roof.
Four vehicles were fully insured, totaled. An old Dodge pickup with only liability insurance will stay pock-marked, with roof light fixtures simply calked shut.
Scott Krueger, who lives in Groton but farms near the Sombkes at Conde, said the storm went right through the center of his farm fields.
“Over half of my crop is literally gone,” he said. Insurance adjusters didn’t have to get out of their vehicles.
“We’ve had hail before, but pea to marble size,” Krueger said. His parents, Lyle and Lois Krueger, in their 90s, live on the farm, where hail broke through windows and bounced up and took out the TV screen.
Since the storm, Krueger has seen a deer fawn wandering, as though missing its mother. A hawk was standing by the road, not moving when approached, as though it couldn’t fly.
Help from friends
Before the storm, the Sombkes had been optimistic about the 2021 hunt.
The pheasant hatch season had been fantastic. The season, though dry, seemed to favor the birds. The Sombkes have always prided themselves on taking hunters within three miles of their lodge.
Now, they’re faced with a “total wipeout” for wildlife.
They found ten mature, dead whitetail deer does. One had been apparently knocked out, bludgeoned with holes punched through its side.
"The birds suffered 100% death loss,” Bryan said. “It killed everything. Where you find one dead bird, you find ten to 20, where they were all roosted up for the night. They were killed right on the spot.”
Most farms, of course, have crop insurance partially compensates when when events like this happen. Not wildlife.
“When a storm like this comes through, we have no way to protect ourselves from that type of damage. And we’ve been lucky to never see anything like this, and now here we are,” Bryan said. “If I walked into an insurance office, asking for a plan to cover mortality on wild pheasants, they’re going to laugh me out the door.”
But they’ll “rebuild.”
“We’ll stock some birds,” Bryan said. "It’s a numbers game. We won’t have a high success rate, but you need to get something going. We need get something going. It’ll be years until we’re back to what we know as ‘normal,’ but it’ll be something we have to deal with.”
On Sept. 13, 2021, a friend set up a GoFundMe page which by Sept. 22, 2021, had raised $6,620 of a $10,000 goal to restore conservation acres, trees and birds.
Coteau View will go ahead with their hunts. South Dakota’s “traditional” out-of-state season runs Oct. 16 to Jan. 31, 2022, with about 120 hunters from several states, as far away as Florida and Georgia.
“We are in the process of reaching out to neighbors, family friends, just to try to find some land to conduct the (scheduled) hunts,” he said, adding, “You don’t have to go far to get out of this destruction.”
They’ll put in a bit more CRP.
They plan to place about 300 to 400 pheasant roosters this fall — if they can find them — and about 1,000 hens in the spring. They’ll place the birds for the hunters, but in part to re-establish the population. The birds cost about $15 each.
With a three-bird-per-person limit, that’s a cost of $45 per day. Most hunters come for three to five days, so the costs add up quickly.
If there’s a “silver lining” to a devastating storm, it's that the damage will be a long term benefit for the CRP, much of which was planted at least ten years ago. The hail “completely destroyed” the mat of dead matter that builds up.
“It’s down to bare dirt,” Bryan said. Producers often do light disking as “midterm management" for CRP.
No need for that, now.