Farm bill, donations helped SD ranchers recover from 2013 blizzard

FARGO, N.D. -- Gary Cammack says ranchers who stop in at his Cammack Ranch Supply store in Union Center, S.D., have been commenting about how the clouds, mist and fog in some of the waning days of September remind them of the weather just before ...

Pennington County dug a pit about 2 miles south of Quinn, S.D., to bury animals found in county highway rights-of way. Ranchers are allowed to use the pits, but the difficulty and expense of hauling animals far from where they died is often cost-prohibitive or otherwise impractical. Many will be disposed of privately, which is one reason true death totals may never be known. Photographed Oct. 15, 2013, at Quinn, S.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)



FARGO, N.D. - Gary Cammack says ranchers who stop in at his Cammack Ranch Supply store in Union Center, S.D., have been commenting about how the clouds, mist and fog in some of the waning days of September remind them of the weather just before the blizzard that hit the region Oct. 3 to 5, 2013.

“People were telling me it created a tiny flashback; it’s definitely on their minds,” says Cammack, a Republican state representative and his party’s unopposed nominee for state senate.

Ranchers who lived through it remember how the weather turned from 80 degrees to a fast-moving blizzard, later named Atlas. Union Center was dubbed the “epicenter” of the livestock damage, according to officials at the time.


A year ago, the initial predictions started at 3 to 6 inches of snow. Then it increased to 6 to 12 inches - still nothing to write home about. Ranchers who could move their cattle closer to home did so. Winds up to 70 mph drove into the hides of cattle that hadn’t grown their winter coats. The wind drove them over cliffs in the Badlands and into creeks and draws to their deaths.

Ranches in the Black Hills picked up nearly 5 feet of snow, but the cattle damages were the most stunning to the east out on the plains, in South Dakota towns such as Philip, Wall, Faith and Union Center.

It took weeks to count up the losses. Some of the financial accounting took months and some say it will never be known. Animals had sometimes drifted 10 to 12 miles from home. Some were found under snow drifts that didn’t melt for more than a month before the true winter would set in.

43,000 head

Based on relief programs, the South Dakota governor’s office figured 43,000 animals lost their lives, including entire herds of cattle and strings of horses. Cammack, who now thinks the true losses are closer to 60,000 animals, says there was the financial loss, but the immediate impact on ranchers was the loss of life.

“People who came over a hill and saw their losses for the first time were thinking that they had failed in their responsibilities as the steward of that living thing that had died,” he says. “The economics come into it, but it was far from their first thought.”

Emotional support from relief efforts offered a big boost. Miles City, Mont., rancher Ty Linger helped establish the Heifers for South Dakota campaign, which would send thousands of herd replacements and money to storm-stricken ranchers. Many people gave some of the best cattle they had.

Linger, 34, says the Heifers for South Dakota project allowed the donation of 1,145 bred heifers to qualifying recipients. Including the value of the calf and at today’s increased values, that conservatively would be worth $3.5 million, he says.


The formal project wound down in June 2014, but a couple of ranch families have approached him about donating more cattle this fall, and so the organization will resume, he says, but not on the multi-state level it was at the height of the effort.

“We’ll start accepting heifers in the next couple of weeks for delivery in mid-November,” Linger says.

Linger remembers knowing he had to take action after seeing news reports the Monday after the weekend storm.

“It really pulled on my heart,” he remembers. “If I’d gotten a gooseneck trailer full, I would have been tickled, but we got over 100 times over that.”

People who wish to donate can contact Linger at 406-853-3188 , email the organization at , or send funds to the North Central Resource Conservation Development, 800 West Dakota Ave., Pierre, S.D., 57501. He says the organization still has some carryover donated funds that will be turned into cattle and donations this fall.

The South Dakota stock grower and sheep grower associations and friends pushed the Rancher Relief Fund, supported by rural and urban well-wishers both near and from across the world. The fund compensated animal losses of all types with a total of $5.4 million, including $1.6 million that went to Meade County, which includes Sturgis and Union Center. Other hard-hit counties were Pennington and Custer.

“The only thing that matched the devastation of the blizzard was the volume and frequency of the generosity that followed,” Cammack says. “It’s overwhelming. There are literally a thousand stories that will never be told because people did some generous thing and the donor wanted to be anonymous.”

Richard Papousek of Quinn, S.D., lost 230 head of cattle - about 37 percent of his herd. The relief efforts of people all over the country were immeasurable, says Papousek, who was featured by Agweek in the aftermath of the blizzard.


“The generosity and the current prices we’re getting for our cattle,” have gotten the family through.

The heifer donation brought him 13 bred heifers and $8,000 in cash. The relief fund itself brought $60,000. People in the town of Wagner, S.D., where his son is an agriculture teacher, donated $6,500.

He and his wife, Lorayna, received $250,000 through the Livestock Indemnity Program. He says the totals account for about half of the $600,000 in financial losses they sustained.

Papousek hired a veterinarian to come to his ranch and do a forensic study of some of his dead animals, arguing they technically had drowned with too much moisture and water in their lungs, so should be covered by insurance. His insurance company denied the claim. He took his case to the South Dakota Insurance Commission, which recommended the company pay the indemnity. The company declined and now the case is pending in Pennington County district court.

“We’re supposed to get a judge to rule on it,” Papousek says, indicating the case is worth about $125,000 to him.

Farm bill support

Just based on raw cattle numbers, the economic loss is approaching $100 million, Cammack says. But he adds the losses were even larger because 70 percent of the cattle lost were mature cows.

“Rancher after rancher I talked to said that was the case,” he says. “The mature cow that died in October was carrying the 2014 calf crop in her belly. That’s a loss of the cow that died there, but the calf she was carrying. You’ve lost future income, lost genetics.”


Leaders hailed the private relief efforts as a vital lift, but the average value of cows and calves at the time of the storm was probably $1,500. The relief fund provided about $125 per animal - less than a tenth of the value.

State government officials, including the governor and lieutenant governor, were on the scene.

“Everybody was pulling in the same direction,” Cammack says.

But the heavy lifting on the financial side came from the federal government with the passage of the farm bill in February 2014 and the speedily reconstituted Livestock Indemnity Program. Ranchers were eligible for up to $150,000 per individual and $250,000 per active ranching couple. The program paid 75 percent of the value at the time of the storm.

Michael Scuse, a top U.S. Department of Agriculture official who later was promoted to undersecretary of agriculture for farm and foreign agricultural services, made sure his troops were ready to deliver aid as soon as it was passed into law.

Scuse visited the region twice and was applauded for putting his heart and USDA’s muscle into the efforts. Signup for the program was available within 60 days of President Barack Obama signing the farm bill.

According to USDA’s Farm Service Agency office in Huron, S.D., the state was No. 1 in LIP payments for the nation, so far in 2014 providing $32.8 million of the nation’s $49 million paid out on 2013 calendar losses.

To compare, LIP payments for 2012 in the state had been $209,944, says Lynn Stoltenburg, a state FSA program specialist. The program doesn’t keep track of how many animals it compensated for, but he says the October 2013 storm accounted for the lion’s share of the damage.


Cammack believes the LIP program “accelerated the economic recovery by at least a decade, and that might be an understatement.” He says the federal government met its true purpose, which is to “do for folks what they can’t do for themselves.”

Rebuilding together

Even with the financial help, however, ranchers suffered. Some cattle losses weren’t fully deductable because the animals had been raised as replacements within a herd and couldn’t be sufficiently documented as a proven cost. And ranchers pay taxes on income from government and private programs.

Famously, cowboys don’t cry, Cammack says. But as ranchers slowly dug out and made it to the store, at tiny Union Center, Cammack would regularly ask how they’d fared in the blizzard. More than one would start to respond and then disappear to the coffee pot in the back of the store, or to the restroom, and not come back until they’d gathered themselves.

Cammack particularly remembers one bachelor rancher who came into the store and announced to Cammack that he’d gotten “married.” It was a kind of joke the man had seemed to have rehearsed to put some humor in the situation.

“He said, ‘Three weeks ago I got married to Mother Nature. She took the cows, and I kept my land.’”

National impacts

As devastating as it was, Atlas didn’t have a huge effect on the nation’s livestock economy. A 60,000 animal loss is half of the nation’s daily cattle kill of about 120,000 - a drop in the bucket. The five-year drought in southern states such as Texas and Oklahoma was having a bigger effect.


Rising cattle prices both increased the value of animals ranchers needed to replenish herds and increased the value of what they had left.

“If prices would have been at the level they were at in 2012 and early 2013, it would have been hard to recoup as we have,” Papousek says. Calf prices today are $500 more than they were a year ago, he says.

South Dakota State University climate specialists last week called the blizzard an “anomaly” that occurs about once every 10 years, but with devastatingly poor timing in this case. There has been an increase in water vapor in the air since 1966, but it doesn’t necessarily account for extreme conditions and not necessarily attributable to a changing climate, says Laura Edwards, an SDSU climate field specialist.

As the anniversary of the storm approached, South Dakotans were listening to predictions of another fall rain and temperatures dipping into the 30s on Oct. 2. There were no blizzard predictions yet.

But ranchers needed to ask whether winter could come that early a second time because it already has. Rapid City, S.D., had received 8 inches of  snow on Sept. 11, 2014, the earliest since 1888, according to the National Weather Service.

Richard Papousek of Quinn, S.D., says he doesn’t know how dead cattle will be retrieved from in the Badlands ravines. Photographed Oct. 15, 2013, at Wall, S.D. (Forum News Service/Agweek/Mikkel Pates)

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
What To Read Next
Get Local