STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's go next to South Dakota, where a freak October blizzard recently killed tens of thousands of cattle. The number of animals dead is hard to confirm in part because the federal agency responsible for counting livestock losses after a disaster is closed due to the partial government shutdown.
South Dakota Public Broadcasting's Charles Michael Ray reports ranchers are struggling to save the cattle they can and bury the cattle they can't.
CHARLES MICHAEL RAY, BYLINE: October is often a great month to be in South Dakota. The leaves turn shades of gold and red and the afternoon temperatures generally hover in the lower 70s. That's one reason the early October blizzard caught so many here off guard, including Todd Collins, who's working next to a steel corral that contains a few of his surviving cows. Collins lost a fifth of his herd in this storm.
You ever seen a storm like this?
TODD COLLINS: Never. My dad's 80 years old and he said he's never seen a killer storm the first of October.
RAY: The storm ended up being much worse than forecast. First came the rain. And then hours of heavy, wet snow with 60 mile an hour wind gusts. The cattle, grazing in their pastures, hadn't yet built up a thick winter coat of fur. Many disoriented in the blizzard, wandered to exhaustion and fell victim to hypothermia before suffocating under the snow drifts. Ranchers like Collins spent days rounding up the survivors. He stands amid the carcasses littering the fields behind him, some still tangled in barbed wire.
COLLINS: Oh, there's about 27 over there in that pile, and then the rest of them you can see are just scattered all the way across here.
RAY: Ranchers are known for being stoic, but you can see their emotions come to the surface when they talk about losing cattle. Sylvia Christen knows this all too well. She works with livestock producers though the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.
SYLVIA CHRISTEN: These are tough guys that have lost everything. And they cared for these animals; they really took all the precautions they could when this storm was predicted. Many of these ranchers feel like they failed their responsibility and the emotional part of that is devastating.
RAY: Christen says that private insurance bought for cattle losses rarely covers suffocation deaths in a blizzard. She notes there are programs through federal agencies, like the USDA, aimed at disaster recovery for ranchers who suffer massive losses. But when ranchers call the USDA these days here's what they get.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hello, you have reached USDA service center. Due to a lapse in current government funding, all employees are unavailable until further notice. Thank you.
RAY: South Dakota's Republican U.S. Senator John Thune toured the blizzard devastation by air. He says the Department of Agriculture should put its employees back to work to deal with this disaster.
SENATOR JOHN THUNE: The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority, in the case of an emergency like this, to declare them as essential. And so, we're asking him to declare the personnel in these offices as essential so they can get back on the job.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
RAY: Back on a dirt road in Western South Dakota, several of Todd Collins neighbors are helping him load a handful of his surviving cattle onto trucks. Collins' sadness over lost cattle turns to anger when you ask him about the shutdown of USDA programs. He says that in rural America, neighbors help neighbors - it's the kind of attitude he'd like to see in Congress.
COLLINS: Some of these guys that we were helping today, I don't even know them. And they were helping me move my cows and I was helping them move theirs. And you can get along. You don't have to sit there like them guys in Washington and squabble.
RAY: As Washington squabbles, industry groups say the safety net for these ranchers appears frayed. They point out that the pending Farm Bill is also mired in political gridlock. Livestock producers are being told to document their losses with photos. But as of now, many who tend livestock in South Dakota are thinking less about government aid than they are about the logistics of burying thousands upon on thousands of dead cattle.
For NPR News I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota.