Storm Atlas First-Hand Accounts: ‘This was the hardest on livestock I’ve seen’
October 30, 2013
Marvin Jobgen: Still in the cow business
"You can spend all day on the dead ones but you need to spend more time on the live ones," Scenic, S.D., rancher Marvin Jobgen said. In the days following the already infamous early autumn storm "Atlas" that chilled animals with freezing rain and blew and scattered them for miles, dropping several feet of snow in some cases, Jobgen discovered scenes not viewed in a rancher's worst nightmares.
"In one pasture we turned out 126 pairs and we came back out of there with 26 cows and 90 calves," Jobgen reported, explaining that his cattle are "scattered out" on several summer pastures including community grazing allotments. "One deal was about 15 percent loss on cows and very few calves," he said, adding that in one particular pasture the cattle sought shelter in an old shed and all were survivors.
"Our allotments have pretty good protection but the cattle drifted through badlands creeks and I think some of them breathed in so much water they basically drowned."
Jobgen said that in another pasture, cows dropped down off a big steep ridge in the badlands, plunging to their death in an ugly pile of water, snow, mud and cattle.
"It just depended on where you were and the lay of the terrain and what creeks caught the cattle," he explained.
Accurate counts won't be possible until fall work is done because some cattle remain mixed with the neighbors' cattle.
Good brands are always crucial to the ranchers in that country for identifying ownership in the fall, and because Jobgens have good relationships with their neighbors, they don't worry about cattle that might have drifted into places they aren't aware of.
"We run in a lot of common pastures so these dead cattle in the creeks, you don't know if they are yours or a neighbor's. Until we all get cattle home and start vaccinating and getting counts … then we'll get a lot better number of individual losses coming out of these allotments."
Jobgen said his cattle are all hot branded for ownership and freeze branded for herd identification so he eventually expects to be able to tally all the live ones, giving him an accounting on the dead ones as well.
"You know what you had going in but so many drifted through fences, you know how many you are coming out with but you don't know which pastures they started in."
Right now trailing cattle that drifted back toward home is a daily task and Jobgen said his horses are getting weary.
"I think they just want to run away when they see me coming," he joked.
"You can't get too far with the cattle in this mud," Jobgen added. "They are a little confused but their health seems to be good. The worst of the storm only lasted 13 or 14 hours," he said.
Jogben said he had planned, as usual, to sell his steer calves at the end of October and wean his heifer calves. Now he'll be weaning all of the calves and figuring out when to market the steers.
He's also working to get the dead ones disposed of but the mud isn't helping. "Down here in the Badlands if you go off the road when it's this muddy, it doesn't matter what you are driving, you are stuck."
Jobgen worries about younger ranchers with loans on cattle or horses. "There were neighbors who lost some really valuable horses. Not $250 killer horses, well-bred horses with stud fees up to $6,000. They're entire livelihoods revolve around raising or breaking horses," Jobgen said, commenting on one neighbor who trains horses who lost 10 of the 11 geldings he was breaking and another neighbor that lost 38 mares and colts.
The government shutdown had caused further trouble for some ranchers with USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans, he said. "They sold cattle and had their check in hand to pay off loans but their check had to be co-signed by the FSA office and the offices were closed." Some ranchers were paying hundreds of dollars a day in interest, Jobgen said.
Jobgen said 2013 was shaping up to be the best year of his ranching career. "Financially, things were looking awfully bright and now they are not, so any purchases we were considering are history, it's not going to happen."
Looking ahead, Jobgen said he might try to buy some cows if he can. "Otherwise we'll just do what we've always done, tighten up the budget, save back more heifers and buckle down for a couple of years until we can pay the bills. We're still in the cow business, we started with a heck of a lot less."
But he worries about the younger operators who lost as much as 90 percent of their herds.
"It will be two years before we can get a check out of these heifer calves and some of these young guys can't wait that long. They've got to get cows back in the pasture."
To help the younger rancher, Jobgen would like to see some kind of assistance that might fill in after a potential farm bill payment of 65 to 75 percent of market value.
"I'd rather see these young guys get a cow in the pasture than money in their pocket. It would be the best for them and the whole economy."
Derflingers: Good cover wasn't enough
Bucky and Marti Jo Derflinger, who ranch with their daughter Jami near Opal, S.D., know too well the feeling of discovering a large percentage of their herd gone.
Derflinger, who's current tallies indicate around 65 cows and 45-plus calves dead, said he woke up several mornings in hopes of a new beginning after a terrible dream.
"It was awful finding all those dead cows but when we found our stud, Oklahoma Krash, dead, that was not cool. That was really tough," he said, of the horse they had foaled on the ranch in April of 2007.
Family photographs show Krash waiting attentively as Bucky doctors calves, being ridden by a jockey in regional horse races and affectionately nuzzling Jami.
The horses had the best protection, he said, in the bottom of a draw about 200 feet deep that never collected much snow.
"We've never lost a horse in a blizzard and we lost 12 head this time."
He could see where the horses had spent most of the time in that draw and then finally drifted out and perished.
The storm claimed mostly young cows out of his herd of approximately 200, he reports.
"We only lost two cows that we know of, over eight years old," he said, adding that some new fall calves drifted eight miles with the other cattle and survived, while many of their mothers did not.
"The cows were fat, as fat as they've ever been," he said. "It seems like we lost our best cows. It doesn't make any sense."
Losing cow families that had been built on a careful AI program, using the breed's top sires for the past several years, is particularly heartbreaking, Derflinger said.
In the 11 years he's been on the place, Derflinger has never seen drifts as high as he saw from this storm.
"One draw drifted shut and buried them," he said. "We've had three spring blizzards in a row that didn't fill that draw."
After sorting with his wife, daughter and neighbors for several days, the family then slowly trailed the remaining tired and weak cattle home.
"They wouldn't go through a snow bank. They'd had enough of that," he said, adding that they left a few along the way that refused to step in even a couple of inches of snow.
Burying the dead is not a project that will be completed in a day or two.
"It's so muddy here we can't even begin to get to them until it dries out a little," he said.
"Everyone has really pulled together, it's good to have good neighbors and family," he added, noting that the biggest thing he's learned from the blizzard is that he can prepare the best way he knows but ultimately the weather is out of his control. "Mother Nature was pretty mean this time. I don't know what else I could have done, every time we have a blizzard we come out okay because we have such good protection."
Derflinger shared concern over a neighbor whose cows drifted six miles before walking blindly into a dugout and never making it out.
Derflinger is unsure how he will pay the bills this fall.
"It's tight every year anyway. It's really bad now. Something's got to change now," he said. Marti Jo said she hopes their story can be an encouragement to others "fighting the same battle."
"I just hope we never have to go through this again," he said, recalling a book he had once read that spoke of a matador cowboy who crossed the Cheyenne River after a spring storm in 1906 or 1907 "on dead steers."
Derflinger thought that must have been an exaggeration.
"I believe it now," he said.
Paul Erk: Worst blizzard ever
In the "earliest and worst" blizzard he had ever seen, Newell, S.D., rancher Paul Erk said he lost cows, calves and sheep. Still he "got by pretty good" compared to some of his neighbors, he reported.
"I've seen longer storms and I've seen colder storms, but this was the hardest on livestock I've seen," he said of the Oct. 4-5 storm that included an inch and a half of freezing rain followed by about two feet of snow and up to 70 mph winds on his ranch. Many older cows sought shelter or lay down but the younger cows drifted and experienced bigger death loss, he noted.
"The cattle weren't acclimated. They were still slick-haired. It doesn't matter where you look, out on a flat, in a creek, they are just dead. They wore themselves out."
Erk, who sells registered Rambouillet bucks, said a Canadian customer was determined to meet him on Saturday to pick up bucks.
"I told him he wouldn't be able to get in here but he was determined, he said he had an appointment on Monday at the port. So we fought our way out on Sunday to find the rams," Erk said, adding that those stud rams had drifted over in a corral. "There were $3,500 worth of rams laying on top of each other in a snow drift, but they jumped right out of there and we got them loaded."
Erk then pushed snow several miles north to Hoover to meet the customer.
It was then that he received an alarming phone call.
"We hadn't even been able to get out of the yard until then, so we hadn't seen our cattle, but we got a call that there were dead cattle found five miles south, and I started worrying."
Still without electricity as of Oct. 15, Erk said that his son, daughter-in-law and grandkids spent the weekend after the storm helping tally, sort and dispose of livestock.
Neighbors were crucial too.
"We are very fortunate out here. We all worked together, we did what we could for everybody else; they did what they could for us. That is what communities do."
While his original plan to ship lambs during the week of the blizzard were thwarted, Erk plans to ship his lambs in the coming days. "I'm sure they've lost weight," he said, explaining that the approximately 85-pound lambs probably lost about 10 pounds each. But he is thankful to still have most of them.
"Most of them are alive, but they look rough, really rough," Erk said.
The sheep had been hunkered down in natural shelter on Friday morning when the family decided to bring them in closer to home, after hearing news reports of a more severe blizzard than originally forecasted.
"They were in a draw, we got them out of there and walked them home a mile or mile and a half. We got one pickup stuck so I walked and with two other pickups we had a time getting them out of there but we got them into the corral."
He explained that on Saturday afternoon, after turning them out of the corral, a few sheep died as a result of the cold and stress of the storm.
Erk said he lost "enough" livestock, but knows others are worse off than he.
"We pray for our neighbors and friends across South Dakota, and hope they keep their spirits up and keep going." ❖