At least 2,200 cattle died in the powerful blizzard that struck western Nebraska earlier this month.
The deaths occurred in Sioux and Dawes Counties, according to a preliminary estimate by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator Scott Cotton.
In South Dakota, 15,000 to 30,000 head of cattle are believed dead.
Those numbers are expected to rise as more deaths are reported and more cattle die from the storm's lingering effects.
Neither federal aid nor a relief fund that has been started is expected to match the losses suffered.
By about a 2-to-1 ratio, the Nebraska dead have been mama cows, said Steve Cleveland, president of the Chadron Community Foundation, which is coordinating a Cattlemen's Relief Fund in Nebraska.
That means those cows have spent their entire lives, maybe 10 to 12 years, on a ranch producing offspring. Over those years, ranchers develop a history with each cow by tending to it and its offspring.
Cleveland said the Nebraska cattle were valued at more than $3 million. The cost of the storm will be higher than that when expenses to dispose of dead animals, replace fences and rebuild herds are figured in.
Cattle aren't usually insured and federal aid is typically capped, so the worst-hit ranchers will struggle to replace lost income and assets.
The losses will have an immediate effect on the region, said Cleveland, who also is president of the First National Bank in Chadron, Neb. Communities will see less money flowing in to businesses as ranchers cut back.
In the six days that the Nebraska relief fund has been established, 130 donations totaling $30,000 have been made, Cleveland said. The money will be used to help ranchers put food on the table and otherwise deal with their immediate recovery, he said.
A South Dakota relief fund has generated about $300,000. Cleveland said he anticipates that there will be some sharing across state borders. Some ranchers had cattle in both states.
The South Dakota Stockgrowers Association is estimating that South Dakota could suffer direct economic losses of $550 million and indirect losses of $1.7 billion, said Silvia Christen, executive director.
Rancher Mike Dyer of the Crawford, Neb., area said some of his neighbors may go out of business because their losses have been so steep. That type of decision will probably be made at year's end, after families get a better sense of the damage, he said.
For now, though, ranchers are swept up in a range of unsettling emotions, said Dyer, who counts himself as lucky. He lost about 5 percent of his herd; some of his neighbors lost more than half to nearly all of their herds.
Ranchers have had to document each cow's death, either with a photo or third-party verification, in the event that federal aid becomes available.
That process drives home which cow was obstinate, which was affectionate, which produced a prize bull, which had difficulty with a birth.
Dyer said he got a call from a fellow rancher who had lost about 400 head.
“He said it was really tough walking through and seeing all those cows dead,” Dyer said. “This is something you don't ever want to see.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.