It was a cold, wet day here in Honey Brook, PA, but it feels petty to complain about the rain in the face of the winter super storm that ravaged the midwest late last week. The storm, named Atlas, shattered century old records as it dumped 2-4 feet of snow across the plains of western South Dakota.
For many farmers and ranchers Atlas was more than an out-of-season inconvenience. In his wake he left tens of thousands of dead animals. Cattle, horses, sheep. For a livestock farmer, your herd is your income, your livelihood. Many ranchers lost 20-50% of their herds. Some early estimates say as many as 1.5 million cattle are dead.
Before anyone starts accusing the ranchers of carelessness, keep a few things in mind. Cattle are hearty animals with fur coats that can withstand cold weather. Most breeds prefer cold to heat and would rather be outside than trapped in a musky barn. Ranchers out west deal with blizzards every year without devastating losses to their herds. They know how to keep their animals warm and safe. These animals are their income; keeping them alive is their top priority and they know how to just that when cold weather strikes. But Atlas struck early and hard. Most animals are just starting to develop their winter coats and the lack of that extra layer of warmth was a big part of the problem.
Many ranchers still had their herds in summer pastures, finishing off the remaining sweet summer grasses. Winter pastures often have sheltered areas that provide protection during bad storms, but Atlas came too soon. The animals hadn’t made it that far in their grazing schemes. Ranchers are finding cattle 5 or more miles from the pastures where they’d been when the storm hit. That may not seem like much but just imagine walking 5 miles in a blinding blizzard without a winter coat. The animals wandered searching for grass and shelter; snowdrifts covered fences and allowed them to simply walk out of their pastures. This makes it difficult for ranchers to accurately track their losses and raises biosecurity concerns as stray cattle from neighboring farms can transmit diseases.
The losses suffered will be felt for months and years to come. For most cattle farmers, breeding season just ended. Cows are bred in the late summer months and calves are born ten months later towards the end of spring. 1.5 millions cattle dead, not including next year’s unborn calves. At a gross profit of $1,000-$1,500 per head, this is true emotional and economic devastation for these men and women.
Stories from South Dakota have taken a back seat to the government shutdown in the national news outlets, so I wanted to share it here. We invest so much time and energy hedging out bets, padding our lives with 401(k)s and health insurance policies and the like. But Mother Nature doesn’t care about such things. Our secure little bubbles can burst at any moment. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone who was affected by Atlas.