More cattle died in the unseasonable blizzard last weekend in northwest Nebraska, southern South Dakota and eastern Wyoming than originally believed, according to observers who have been there.
“Things here are far worse than I anticipated in terms of deaths among cattle," Nebraska state Sen. Al Davis, a rancher from Hyannis, said in a release posted on the Rapid City Journal's website. "Livestock losses on the plains of Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming are estimated to be between 60,000 and 100,000 head. There are also animals that will sicken and die as time goes on which will add to these numbers.”
Davis met Friday afternoon with ranchers in Crawford at the sale barn.
The effects will be felt for years, he said, because the storm took calves and cows that would have delivered calves next year.
“Some cows managed to survive the storm by eating pine needles because grass was covered," Davis said. "This will cause them to abort the calves they are carrying in the next few weeks.”
One rancher lost 350 of his 400 cows — conservatively, a $500,000 loss, and also emotionally overwhelming and devastating, Davis said in an interview Friday. They drove them into a corral, where they smothered, he said. "These people need prayer and they need help," he said.
The severe snowstorm, unusual for early October, caught many ranchers in the Nebraska Panhandle off guard. They reported widespread losses of cattle that froze or suffocated in massive snow drifts while out on summer ranges. Many cattle drifted far away from their normal range.
Davis said a friend of his in Sioux County rode eight miles and was never out of sight of five to 10 dead animals. "If that tells you anything it will be a large number when it's all said and done," Davis said.
"There are thousands dead — thousands," Jack Hunter, owner of the Crawford Livestock Market, said earlier in the week. "There are 2,000 to 3,000 in our area that I know of. I'm 62 years old. I've been here my whole life, and I've never seen anything like it."
As of Friday afternoon, projections of livestock lost in northwest Nebraska indicate 763 to 873 cattle died in Dawes County and 206 cattle and nine horses in Sioux County, said Jodie Fawl, public information officer for the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency.
"I've never even heard of this kind of cattle losses in my entire life," said Davis, whose family has ranched in the Sandhills for generations. "It's going to be a gut-wrenching thing for these people. ... They're going to be wondering what they could have done differently. Young guys who have borrowed money have lost their collateral. Hopefully the banks will be merciful, but some of the young people will be driven out."
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The Nebraska Department of Agriculture is encouraging ranchers to keep detailed records of losses and have them verified by a third party, such as a veterinarian or county extension agent, in case they become eligible for federal assistance. They also were advised to take photographs and hold onto receipts for carcass-removal services.
After his visit to northwest Nebraska with a state emergency team, Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann said he was surprised by the number of livestock deaths.
"It was worse than I thought," he said. "What I wasn't prepared for was the loss of livestock. They showed me pictures of animal after animal — piles of them — that they're going to have to deal with. There's snow still out there, and as it melts, I'm sure they're going to be finding even more."
South Dakota officials have estimated livestock mortality in the tens of thousands.
The Solid Waste Agency of Northwest Nebraska said it has been granted a permit by the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to operate an Emergency Carcass Disposal Area at the landfill 14 miles north of Chadron off U.S. 385.
A relief fund has been established for ranchers at the Chadron Community Foundation, according to Davis' office.
And in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Pennington County plans to open two mass-burial pits for free public use starting Monday.
Pennington County has been scrambling to figure out how to remove a sea of dead cattle that froze to death in the storm. The carcasses have become fodder for wild animals and are a growing public health concern.
"The far-reaching impact of the unusually early and powerful snowstorm last weekend in Nebraska's northern Panhandle and neighboring South Dakota is still being assessed," said a post attributed to Davis' staff on the Rapid City Journal's website. "State, county and local officials, and residents are stepping up to offer support. Awareness of the scope of this disaster needs to be heightened throughout Nebraska and the nation, because continued assistance for this area will be needed for some time to come.
"Ranchers are struggling with immediate economic and emotional pain and will soon face the challenge of disposal of carcasses," the post said. "At this time the federal government is ill-equipped to offer immediate assistance, so it will be especially important for ranchers to carefully document their losses. If good records are not kept, eligibility for indemnity funds will be jeopardized should such funds become available."