Full disclosure time: I’m from the east. The west operates on a scale that seems kind of foreign to me. Eastern sizes are in the tens, and western sizes – from miles to head of cattle to acreage – run in the hundreds. My father-in-law is from the west, though, and when we were on a road trip together once, traveling from the west into Colorado, he said that he always got stressed out coming so far east. That was when we were hitting Idaho. So the foreign flavor goes both ways.
When tragedy strikes on the western scale, it occurs on that larger western scale. When a storm hit South Dakota early this October, an estimated twenty thousand head of cattle died. It might even have been more; estimates are still coming in. The storm hit harder than expected, preceded by rains, early in the year, without much warning. Herds were still on summer pasture, which isn’t unusual for this time of year. It can take a week or more to move them all to winter pasture, so by the time the weather hit, it was already too late to move them to winter pasture. For a rancher’s perspective on the storm and answers to how so many cattle could have been impacted, we highly recommend reading this blog post.
Not only were cattle struck down, but ranchers were struck hard. The herds they work so hard to raise and feed and protect were reduced by 10-20 percent. This loss is on a scale that’s hard to fathom. The state is tied for 6th in the nation in cattle numbers: 3.85 million this year. Now, news reports are suggesting ten to twenty percent of the state’s herd will be buried instead of sent to market. For ranchers dealing with 2 years of extreme drought, the October blizzard could mean the end of their business.
On top of the storm the ranchers are still dealing with the way the government has or hasn’t been able to respond. When the storm hit, USDA workers were stuck at home (thanks, furlough!), leaving the dreaded phone message for bewildered ranchers. When the government revved back into action, USDA workers still didn’t have an answer because we still don’t have a Farm Bill. The government’s job and its ability to do it is a topic that is too tender to touch right now. If you or I ruled the world, we might get it right. Or we might find ourselves the subject of ridicule on the front pages of national papers. I’d like to think we could at least get everyone moving forward and working together. That’s when we all win.
No matter what we are able to do to fix our society and our safety nets, this loss is an enormous one. It doesn’t take some eastern gal to figure that out. We are all dealt blows in our life. What we do in the face of those blows shapes our futures. I only hope that the resources are there to help South Dakota’s ranchers work through this one.