Livestock producers have been some of the hardest hit by record amounts of unseasonably early snowfall in recent days in South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.
Early estimates suggest the region may have lost 5 percent or more of its cattle, with the National Farmers Union’s early estimates indicating losses of 15 to 20 percent of entire herds.
And many, including NFU president Roger Johnson, have criticized the government shutdown and lawmakers’ inability to pass a farm bill as limiting assistance before and after the massive weather event on Oct. 4.
Heading into fall with a strong cattle market had many ranchers smiling and looking forward with more anticipation than usual to sale day.
Sale day for some will now be a grim reminder of losses caused by the epic blizzard that killed tens of thousands of cattle, sheep and horses — mostly in western South Dakota. The state’s agriculture department does not yet have any total figures on livestock losses but a representative said they are receiving reports of South Dakota producers losing as much as 50 percent of their herds.
Philip Livestock, on Oct. 1, reported 567-pound black and black white-face cross steers bringing $186.25 per hundredweight. Black heifers weighing 940 pounds fetched $144.25 per hundredweight and cull cows, bulls and heiferettes were worth anywhere from $75 to $119 per hundredweight, depending on age and condition.
While it is hard to estimate the value of a home-raised female retained into a rancher’s herd, Philip Livestock owner and manager Thor Roseth in Philip, S.D., estimates that good bred heifers will be in demand this fall, worth anywhere from $1,800 to $2,200 per heifer.
Younger bred cows could be worth that much or more, he said.
In order to make preparations for possible federal livestock loss assistance, South Dakota Sen. John Thune shared the following suggestions:
“South Dakota ranchers with livestock losses, due to the devastating snowstorm over the weekend, should carefully certify losses in the event federal assistance becomes available. Certification can include second-party certification, rendering receipts, photos or video with date stamp of dead livestock, calving/lambing records, or purchase records to verify the number of livestock owned on the day prior to the snowstorm.”
The Republican senator explained that because a farm bill has not been passed, no disaster assistance is available at the current time, but would be available upon passage of the bill.
“It is all tied up in the farm bill,” Thune said. “If we can get the farm bill approved, the disaster relief is in there.”
He explained that the Senate version of the farm bill includes a Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) that would pay 65 percent of market value for lost livestock, and the House version allows for a 75 percent LIP payment. Both would be figured on the value of the livestock and herd numbers the day prior to the loss.
“Both are reauthorized and funded, that is why it’s important for people to keep records. If it gets approved, and hopefully it does, the structure is there to provide relief,” Thune said.
He explained that he is “hopeful” the farm bill will be passed.
“We are waiting for the House to appoint conferees,” he said, adding that if the bill is passed, payments won’t be immediate.
The U.S. Agriculture Department will have to write regulations and develop software to record losses and, of course, USDA-FSA offices will need to be re-opened.
“In the meantime if we can encourage the governor to request a disaster declaration, low-interest loans could be made available,” Thune said, explaining that disaster declarations are made county-by-county and a 30 percent loss of a certain commodity has to be proven within the county in order to qualify for the designation.
S.D. Department of Agriculture’s General Counsel Courtney De La Rosa explained that the disaster designation must be requested by the county emergency managers.
“It is really important for producers to keep complete records and to document losses,” she stressed.
Keep your head in the game, she said.
“Don’t get frustrated because the FSA (USDA Farm Service Agency) isn’t working (due to the government shutdown),” she said. “Documentation is going to be a big thing. We’re stressing this to our producers.”
She explained that the S.D. Animal Industry Board is coordinating rendering trucks to quickly transport carcasses away.
Dr. Don Safratowich with West River Veterinary Clinic, said his “gut feeling” is that the astronomical death loss resulted from the rain that chilled livestock before the snow and wind.
“We’ve had colder storms but this time they got so wet and the body temperature dropped so much, then hypothermia set in,” he said.
The swirling wind and snow may have also smothered animals.
“It’s almost like they were drowning on top of it,” said the veterinarian, who practices just north of the South Dakota border in Hettinger, N.D.
Regarding animals that have been off feed and water, Safratowich recommended producers attempt to get fluids to them as quickly as possible, but he realizes this is not always feasible, and urges caution.
“A lot of these cattle are down and I hate to try and pump an animal when they are laying down. I worry that it will get into their lungs.”
Fluid and energy is what the stressed animals need, though, but he also understands that some of them are refusing it.
IV fluids are another option, for downed animals but again, not very practical especially in large numbers.
Safratowich doesn’t expect a lot of lasting problems for the livestock that survived.
“Either they’ll recover on their own or they’ll respond to treatment. I don’t think, on the majority, there will be much long-term effect on the live cattle, sheep or horses,” he said. ❖