RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — The legacy of Winter Storm Atlas for livestock producers five years after one of the worst blizzards in South Dakota history could be a lingering distrust of a daily staple of life in agriculture — a weather forecast.
“To this day when you start seeing weather forecasts like last weekend, a forecast of snow in the Black Hills, some people will say this looks just like the forecast we got a week before the Atlas blizzard hit,” said Ken Olson, South Dakota State University extension associate professor and beef specialist.
In October 2013, a preliminary call for rain changing into a routine first snow of the season suddenly turned into a monster: heavy, wet snow driven by gale-force winds, blindsiding and immobilizing cattle producers with their herds still in summer pasture.
Because the storm hit so early in the season, animals also lacked protective winter coats.
When the storm, also rightly called the Cattleman’s Blizzard, finally abated, more than 43,000 cattle, sheep, horses and even bison were dead, either from exposure or suffocated by the wet snow.
The emotional aspects of the losses were devastating.
“The sense of failing when they weren’t able to provide the best of care and the livestock losses piled up was disturbing to a lot of people,” Olson told the Rapid City Journal.
The blizzard struck at a time of government shutdown, with a soon-to-be expired farm bill containing no provisions for disaster relief.
An emergency bailout, quickly passed once Congress got back to work, helped ranchers deal with massive financial losses.
In the weeks and months following the storm, the South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund collected and distributed nearly $5.5 million to more than 600 families who suffered blizzard-related livestock losses. Other ranchers donated livestock to help producers rebuild herds.
“Without the bailout program, there would have been people that went under,” Olson said.
Record livestock prices in 2014 continued through most of 2015, but a pendulum drop in prices through 2016 and 2017 again put financial stress on many producers.
Good moisture years followed the blizzard until 2017, when drought enveloped much of the state.
The dry conditions continued through the winter until the spring of 2018 when heavy snow and unseasonably cold temperatures hit during the peak of the spring calving season.
Some ranchers reportedly lost as many of a third of their spring calves, Olson said, and the latent stress on breeding cows won’t be known until next year.
“I’m concerned,” Olson said.
Life goes on for the agriculture industry, as it always has, and while the grieving for the losses inflicted by the 2013 blizzard may have been displaced by worries of the present and future, the memories of five years ago aren’t far below the surface, Olson said.
“I don’t think that people will get over the shock and fear that it could happen again,” he said.