Surviving the October blizzard

FAITH, S.D. -- The impact of the Oct. 4 storm has varied greatly from one producer to the next, but considerable help has been marshaled, and more is on the way.

FAITH, S.D. -- The impact of the Oct. 4 storm has varied greatly from one producer to the next, but considerable help has been marshaled, and more is on the way.

Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, says even with help, it'll take individual grit to survive. A multi- species Rancher Relief Fund has now collected about $5 million and has delivered more than $4 million in aid.

More than 600 people have applied for the funds, representing some 43,000 livestock -- mostly cattle, but some horses and sheep. The state veterinarian, who had asked for volunteer reporting of losses, ended up accepting the fund's numbers, in part because ranchers were more willing to deal with a nongovernmental entity on a confidential basis.

Christen thinks there is still additional numbers to report, but it's unclear if they will ever be known.

The fund sent out smaller, initial amounts to qualifying applicants just before Christmas and then a second installation to those who had qualified.


"We went to the hardest-hit first, and then as many people as possible," Christen says. "We tried to prioritize for people with higher percent losses, younger people and those that didn't have off-farm income."

Separately, the Heifers for South Dakota program continues to accept donations and has distributed 1,000 head. Bred heifers are about $2,000, so that's another $2 million. Christen says social media played a huge role in both programs, and has let farmers know how to document losses. The Heifers for South Dakota Facebook page has nearly 11,000 Likes.

Of course, the federal Livestock Indemnity Program in the farm bill will be a big help, and will offer individuals up to $125,000 in losses, and couples up to $250,000, paid at 75 percent of market value the day before the storm. Christen declined to estimate how much that is likely to provide in South Dakota. She says ranchers should contact local Farm Service Agency offices. The FSA says it will have forms available to producers by April 15.

In the end, Christen says survival will be about ranchers themselves and their local lenders. The strong market is a "good thing and shows the health of the industry," but also makes it challenging to buy cattle.

Scott Gray, branch manager of First National Bank in Faith, S.D., says operators in his area are still processing losses that were hit-and-miss. "I would say the majority of people I talk to probably lost more cows than they did calves. But then you'll talk to people who lost mostly calves too," he says.

A lot of people hung onto their crop for this year, Gray says, but the "factory" of mature cows is missing for next year.

"That's going to be a big challenge going forward, if they weren't able to add numbers back to the herd," he says.

Gray says he doesn't know anyone who has been knocked out of business entirely. Lender forbearance will be important, he says, but the ability to recover will depend on individual financial situations, including debt levels.

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