Kristina Barker/Reuters /Landov
Heavy and wet snow weighs down tree branches on the west side of Rapid City, S.D. Earlier this month, a fierce October snowstorm hit ranchers in the state hard.
Kristina Barker/Reuters /Landov
A freak October blizzard earlier this month killed tens of thousands of cattle in South Dakota.
The number of animals is hard to confirm. In part, because the federal agency tasked with tallying livestock losses after a disaster is closed during the partial government shutdown.
October is often a great weather month to be in South Dakota, which is one reason why the early October blizzard caught so many off guard.
Todd Collins lost a fifth of his herd in this storm. "My dad is 80 years old, and he says he's never seen a killer storm the first of October."
The storm ended up being much worse than forecast. First came the rain, then hours of heavy, wet snow with 60 mile-per-hour wind gusts.
The cattle, grazing in their summer 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. Carcasses litter the fields, some still tangled in barbed wire.
"There's about 27 over there in that pile, and then the rest are scattered all the way across here," Collins says.
Ranchers are known for being stoic, but you can see their emotions come to the surface when they talk about losing cattle.
Sylvia Christen, who works with livestock producers though the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, knows this all too well.
"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," she says.
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: "Hello, you've reached the USDA service center. Due to the lapse in current federal government funding, all employees aren't available until further notice. Thank you."
South Dakota's Republican U.S. Sen. 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.
"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," Thune says.
Back on a dirt road in western South Dakota, several of Collins' neighbors are helping him load some 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, and it's the kind of attitude he'd like to see in Congress.
"Some of these guys that we were helping today, I don't even know 'em. And they were helping me move my cows and I was helping them move theirs. You can get along. You don't have to sit there like [those] guys in Washington and squabble," Collins says.
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 thousands of dead cattle.