Warning: The videos and photos on this post show many dead animals.
A rare, early October blizzard the dropped three to four feet of snow following two inches of rain has devastated South Dakota, after as many as 100,000 head of cattle may have died following the October 3rd storm. The losses have ranchers reeling both financially and emotionally, as they are tasked with gathering and burying tens of thousands of dead animals.
John M. Glionna with The Los Angeles Times reports on what made the story so deadly:
The blizzard hit just days after 80-degree weather, before ranchers had moved their herds from less-protected summer grazing lands. Most ranchers were set to bring calves to market — the satisfying payday after another year of grueling labor. Thousands of head had been recently relocated here from Texas and New Mexico to escape punishing droughts in those states.
"Some ranchers lost all their cattle. They've yet to find one alive," Christen said. "They're facing absolute destruction."
Lamphere, a former ranch hand, said the cattle lacked their warmer winter coats to protect them from wet snow that stuck to bodies already chilled by freezing rain. He said cattle caught in the open field by bad weather instinctively head downwind, their heads low, as they seek shelter.
"They go into survival mode," he said. "Some animals walked 12 miles, breaking through fences, crossing highways, until they finally met their end."
Unable to see, many livestock fell into ditches, quickly covered by trailing animals in a tragic chain reaction. Some animals were so weary they stood frozen in groups, eventually suffocated by piling snow. Cattle collapsed along fences, perishing from hypothermia, others hit by passing cars.
South Dakota's Keloland.com spoke with a cattle rancher that also works as a veterinarian about what the animals faced with this storm:
In a lot of cases, entire herds huddled up in the open pastures and ravines to try to stay warm.
"The worst thing is we had two inches of rain followed by three feet of snow afterwards, so not only was the ground wet, the cattle sunk into it. Many of them actually drowned as the snow came over top, literally started burying them and crushing them and pushing them down into the wet soil underneath there," veterinarian Mike McIntyre said.
Warning: graphic images.
Making matters worse is that the federal agency that is responsible for documenting livestock losses after a disaster is closed because of the government shutdown.
Additionally, because Congress failed to pass a new Farm Bill, no financial relief measures have been appropriated, reports Reid Wilson with the Washington Post.
Ranchers usually have to document their losses by photographing dead cattle. But, Noem said, the fact that the programs aren’t funded means ranchers can’t be certain that they’re documenting their losses appropriately — because the rules aren’t finalized.
“They just don’t know that there’s anything there. There’s no program, it’s not authorized, there’s no funding. They don’t know if they’re documenting correctly,” Noem said.
This logistical and emotional challenge is too much to bear for some ranchers, as this anecdote from the LA Times shows:
Rancher Steve Schell, who lost half his herd, said he can't bear the idea of finding more dead animals beneath the melting snow.
"I'm just so damned whipped," he said. "I'm played out."
The 52-year-old recalled the shock of seeing mountains of dead animals.
"I can't explain what it's like because, mister, you can't imagine it until you witness it with your own eyes," he said. "To see 15 or 20 cattle piled up — the fruits of all your hard labor — you just have no concept."
The sight, he said, broke his nerve.
"I just sat down and bawled," he said. "Then I got up and threw up. And then I got angry. I don't what exactly I was angry at."
He paused. "It hurts just to talk about it," he said.
Reder feels the rancher's pain: "For all these animals, that was just a cruel way to die."
I suspect some readers will raise the point that these 50,000 to 100,000 dead cows are just a fraction of the millions of animals the meat industry systematically kills every year. That is true, but we should not let that harden ourselves to the suffering that this storm has caused.
Coming face-to-face with death on such a massive scale is something few humans ever have to endure, much less having to also deal with the logistics of data collection and documentation at a time of such high emotional stress. Add to that the mentally and physically grueling effort needed to locate these carcasses, gather them together, dig mass graves in feet of snow and bury what were the fruits of their effort, their payday for an entire year's work and this situation seems unfathomable.
That the planet would be better off if humans ate less meat is as true today as it was before this terrible storm. But just as we in the sustainability community should seek to help reduce suffering among coal miners and their families, even as we work to see less coal burned in the world, we should also have compassion for ranchers and farmers that suffer from drought or storms.
As Lucas Lentsch, South Dakota’s secretary of agriculture, told The Washington Post's Reid Wilson, it's important for Americans to know what these people are going through:
“This isn’t just a crop that’s planted and harvested in the fall. When you’re dealing with ranch families, you’re dealing with generations of genetics,” Lentsch said. “This is a devastating blow, and it’s important for America to remember where its food comes from.”
IMAGE: The top photo comes from a non-embeddable Associated Press video with aerial footage here.