Cattle deaths create deep scars for Midlands ranchers -
Published Monday, October 14, 2013 at 1:30 am / Updated at 1:20 pm
Cattle deaths create deep scars for Midlands ranchers

It was more than the fourth-generation rancher could bear.

The freakishly brutal rainstorm and blizzard claimed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of cattle in South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming.

Ranchers have found dead mama cows and calves piled in ravines, against fences, drowned in ponds, splayed out in the open, buried in drifts and snared by gates. Also dead is a lesser number of horses and sheep.

Most of the cattle died in South Dakota, where the record October blizzard hit the hardest, but the three-day storm also brushed the northern Nebraska border.

Jerry and Candy Golden, who ranch outside of Crawford, Neb., lost more than half of their breeding stock to the storm.

But it was the death of a single mama cow that embodies the pain ranch families are feeling.

The couple considered the black Angus cow a pet and had affectionately named her “Cake Cow,” for her desire to be hand-fed her mineral biscuits. She could be counted on for a friendly, loping greeting when they pulled up in their pickup.

Candy Golden said her husband of 41 years broke down when he told her the news.

“I know I shouldn't get emotional,” she said as her own voice cracked. “But you get attached to them. This was the worst.”

This part of the country hasn't seen a loss like this in at least 50 years, said Melody Benjamin, a rancher and a vice president of the Nebraska Cattlemen.

Dead livestock are still being located. In Nebraska, from 1,500 to 3,000 died, she said.

In a state with an estimated 6.7 million head of cattle, that's not enough to disrupt the larger agricultural economy.

Instead, this will be a deeply private disaster.

Some families are likely to go bankrupt. Most will begin the years-long process of rebuilding a herd.

Unlike with farming, little government aid is available, said State Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis, who represents the affected area.

Because Congress has not yet passed a farm bill, the fund that could have assisted the worst-hit ranchers is no longer in place. Benjamin said that down the road Congress may revive the fund, so ranchers are encouraged to document their gruesome losses.

Davis said he hopes Nebraskans will lend a hand.

The storm couldn't have occurred at a worse time.

Ranchers were on the cusp of selling calves, which is what generates their annual income. So the calves that died took with them a full year's earning.

The storm also killed cows pregnant with next year's calves, so gone also is next year's income. And then there's the loss of the mama cows themselves, as well as their future calving potential.

In city terms, ranchers lost both their income — calves — and their factory — mama cows.

A relief fund has been set up through the Chadron Community Foundation. Donations can be sent to the Cattlemen Relief Fund, P.O. Box 1125, Chadron, NE 69337.

“We're encouraging everybody to send what they can,” Davis said. “If you can send a big check, send a big check. But if you can only send $5, send $5.”

Most blizzards occur in the depth of winter or early spring after cattle have been moved from their more exposed summer pastures to the safer, more sheltered confines of winter pastures.

These cattle, which were on their summer range, were within days or weeks of being transferred to that more protected pasture.

Ranchers can't keep cattle on the more protected, accessible winter pasture year-round because land would become overgrazed. That's why they carefully time the move to ensure sufficient feed to make it through winter.

Had this storm occurred a few days to weeks later, after the change in pastures and livestock sales, losses would have been much less.

The land itself, in addition to the storm, worked against the ranchers. The soil in this area is known as gumbo because it transforms into a quicksand-like goo when it gets soaked. Pickup trucks can't get traction. The only vehicles that can maneuver are four-wheelers with four-wheel drive.

But four-wheelers are not strong enough to pull a 1,200-pound cow out of the muck.

Golden said he had a tough time extracting a 500-pound calf. The first time he freed it up, the muck sucked it back in. So he put a rope around the calf and pulled it free with a four-wheeler.

Dr. Robert Reid, a veterinarian in Crawford, said the cattle died of hypothermia, suffocation and drowning.

Instinctively, cattle turn their backs to a storm and walk endlessly away from the wind. Because they don't stop and couldn't see in the nighttime blizzard, they piled on top of each other, in ravines, ponds and against fences, or died in the open.

Reid said calves born to surviving pregnant cows are likely to be sickly, so the effects of this storm could be felt in successive generations.

Cattle walked for miles through the storm. Rancher Tammi Littrel said some of the cattle that died on her property came from as far as 20 miles away.

Her neighbors, she noted, have lost a lifetime of work. It takes years and money to breed cattle that will do well in northwest Nebraska.

“It's not like they can go to the Cattle Walmart and grab something off the shelf,” she said. “They've taken several generations to have cattle that will genetically do well in our area. I don't know how they'll start over.”

Reid, the veterinarian, said ranchers have been wounded by comments on Facebook that implied they hadn't done all they could to save their herds.

“These guys are out there risking their lives to save their herds,” he said. “They're doing all they can.”

Rancher Todd Faessler lost more than 450 head, about half of his mama cows and one-fourth of his calves.

“It's a financial hurdle, but it bothers me more emotionally,” he said. “We've been around these cattle our whole lives. You actually get to know them. They're kind of like family.

“And the way they died, this is something you don't want to see.”

Contact the writer: Nancy Gaarder    |   402-444-1102    |  

Nancy writes about weather, including a blog, Nancy's Almanac. She enjoys explaining the science behind weather and making weather stories relevant in daily life.

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