Blizzard’s statewide impact minimal in South Dakota: Devastating individual effects not expected to severely harm livestock industry
RAPID CITY, S.D. — Livestock losses from October's early season blizzard shouldn't have a major impact on the South Dakota’s industry as a whole.
Turn the spotlight on the individual ranchers, and the picture changes.
"In bulk, we're probably OK. Individually, there's guys going out of business because of this," said Dan Oedekoven, director of the South Dakota State University West River Ag Center in Rapid City.
West River producers applying for aid from the charitable South Dakota Ranchers Relief Fund reported losing 42,608 head of livestock in western South Dakota. Oedekoven thinks applications to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's livestock indemnity program will provide a more accurate tally.
Based on the Ranchers Relief claims and a comparative look at county-by-county statistics, the percentage of livestock lost in the affected area is about 8 percent, he said. He believes the industry will weather the loss, though recovery from the blizzard's sting looks different from ranch to ranch.
"I think the losses have more impact when you talk about it on an individual basis," Oedekoven said. "The guy that lost 85 percent of his cows. That is an economic loss ... That's the real wreck."
The recovery process started quickly, and help came in various forms after the blizzard, most notably from the local communities and the state, Oedekoven said. He relayed stories of neighbors helping neighbors, including a rancher who pulled into a neighbor's yard, unloaded a trailer of heifers and promised to come back the next week to help brand the animals for their new owner.
"It's neighbors taking care of neighbors kind of stuff," Oedekoven said. "That's exciting to hear those kind of stories."
The in-kind support, however, doesn't wipe the slate clean from the emotional and financial impact of losses on individual ranchers. The loss was heavier for those with higher debt, who used herds as collateral, Oedekoven said. But, even for the financially stable rancher, the impact wasn't sunny.
"Even those fellows who were in pretty good financial shape, there's an emotional thing that comes from riding out there one morning and seeing 200 dead cows lying in a pile in one spot," Oedekoven said. "You can't hardly get over that picture in your mind. It's a lasting thing these guys will never forget."
Within days of the the storm's end, the South Dakota Ranchers Relief Fund was established to provide short-term aid to producers. By the middle of February, the fund had distributed more than $4.1 million, with about 600 applications received by the end of 2013. Eligible producers needed to demonstrate at least a 10 percent loss of their herds.
Jodie Anderson, executive director with the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association, said the partners who established the fund initially expected to raise about $1 million. Partners included the SDCA, the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, the Black Hills Area Community Foundation and two volunteer organizations that reviewed applications -- Lutheran Social Services and Catholic Social Services.
"We didn't know what we were going to be able to accomplish. We were getting a lot of phone calls from people wondering what they could do to help," Anderson said. "We needed something to tell people, 'This is what you can do to help.' "
She described the fund as an emergency shot in the arm for affected producers.
"We never anticipated we would ever be able to make anybody whole," Anderson said. "Our intention always has been to try and fulfill their immediate needs so that they can hang on until disaster programs get put into place, and they can get to their next calf crop, if they have animals left to have a calf crop. To try and keep them afloat in the interim until they figure out their path forward."
The fund was established specifically in response to the storm and received donations from every state and other countries. A majority of donations were given from within South Dakota. Plans are to close the fund by June.
Government programs specifically for the affected producers started coming on line in January, first with the the state's livestock loan program and now with the upcoming federal livestock disaster program.
Lucas Lentsch, secretary of the state Department of Agriculture, said eligible producers can receive a 2.75 percent interest rate through participating lenders. The state program opened in January with the reduced rate offered to those in a 25-county area in western South Dakota.
Starting in April, producers can apply for fast-tracked aid through the USDA's livestock indemnity program. As part of the newly authorized farm bill, the disaster aid program for livestock producers is set to reduce the payment timeline from up to a year to about 60 days. Lentsch said the department worked with the state's congressional delegation and the USDA to highlight the need for expedited payments.
The program is available not only for producers affected by the October blizzard but for losses experienced in the 2013 spring storms. Aid is available for losses experienced in 2012 and 2013 through the program, which will be administered through the Farm Service Agency.
"That is absolutely going to be something that helps shore up the loss. It doesn't replace the loss, but it does help cushion it," Lentsch said. "And it allows some of these families to have a next chapter."
For individual producers, the support is necessary in rebuilding, especially considering the timing of the October blizzard. Oedekoven says it couldn't have been at a worse time for producers, many of whom were close to selling their 2013 calf crop.
"We had about as many animals out there in the pasture as what we possibly could have had," he said. "Both this year's calf crop and future years' calf crops got impacted."
Lentsch also sees the domino effect of the 2013 losses on the future for producers and highlights the importance of the aid programs to help them rebuild.
"Without those dollars coming back to help shore up some of those losses, this grazing season and 2014 could have a quadrupling effect on folks," he said. "Then if you throw on top of that, without any cash flow assistance, that would just be the fourth leg of the stool, so to speak, to pull out from underneath these producers."
Lentsch echoed Oedekoven's sentiments about the stories of neighbors helping neighbors after the blizzard and put an emphasis on the value that has in carrying ranchers through any economic losses.
"In agriculture, we can value things," he said, emphasizing equipment, land and material values. "But there's something in our rural areas that's called community. On the balance sheet, that has significant impact, but you can't put a number to it. But we are richly blessed. That generosity across the Midwest and across our state has been felt this last year."