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‘It was just gut-wrenching:' Producers still working to rebound from blizzard

BOX ELDER, S.D. — October snow was slamming his ranch, but 37-year-old Monty Williams was not initially concerned about the whiteout conditions, or his cattle.

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“We’ve been through major storms that were by far worse than this one,” the Box Elder man said, referring to Winter Storm Atlas. “But those storms were at different times. They were when the cattle were prepared for that kind of weather. I had never seen weather affect cows like this.”

On his ranch were about 1,200 head of cattle, roughly 600 cows and 600 calves. Outside, dealing with the elements, his cattle endured the three-day storm Oct. 3-5 that had wind and rain and eventually turned into piles of snow.

In areas like Box Elder, just east of Rapid City, 31 inches of snow fell. Lead and Deadwood got 4 feet or more.

As the blizzard subsided, producers like Williams ventured out to track down their cattle, finding many of them were dead. Across the state, the storm killed an estimated 43,000 cattle and other livestock.

“Cows can live in temperatures of 30 to 60 below without death,” Williams said. “But this storm, they couldn’t handle 30 to 60 degrees above with the rain and snow. Their bodies weren’t able to handle those types of conditions, and then hypothermia set in.”

On Williams’ ranch, 169 cows and 35 calves died. He estimated he took a financial hit of $335,000.

Even six months after the blizzard, Williams and other producers in western South Dakota are still battling to ease their financial losses and trying to rebound.

In mid-February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would begin accepting applications in mid-April for a livestock disaster program that was reauthorized in a comprehensive, five-year farm bill.

Ranchers will be able to sign up for livestock disaster programs for losses that were incurred in 2012 through 2014. That means ranchers who lost cattle and other livestock in the blizzard can begin seeking relief within 60 days of the new farm bill becoming law.

Aside from that, several nonprofit organizations, such as the Rancher Relief Fund and Heifers for South Dakota, emerged to aid the losses endured by producers.

Although Williams says he’s forever grateful for the help, he’s not sure producers will be able to completely bounce back from the financial and emotional damage from the storm. Other producers who battled the storm agree.

Gary, 68, and Janet Jorgensen, 67, of Meadow, lost 43 head of cattle, estimating a loss of $80,000.

Larry Stomprud, 65, and his son, Jay, 39, of Mud Butte, had 55 head of cattle killed, totaling at least $70,000 in losses.

“It was just gut-wrenching; that’s the best way I can describe it,” Larry Stomprud said. “It didn’t really hit me hard until a few days later. We retrieved most of the animals and got them out of the creeks. Then we had a rain three or four days later and we lost a calf and a cow. That was the toughest for me, because the thought was, ‘When is this going to end?’ “

On the Stompruds’ ranch in Mud Butte, about 90 miles northeast of Rapid City, the power went out during the blizzard.

The storm ended on a Saturday afternoon, and Larry and Jay Stomprud tried to check on their cattle that day, but a tractor broke down trying to get through their snow-filled property and they were not able to get to their cattle.

The next morning, they saddled up horses and found dead cows scattered on their property.

“We just started looking and pulling tags and there was more and more and more,” Jay Stomprud said. “It didn’t seem to stop.”

Jay said it took the better part of a day to fish out the dead cattle and start the cleanup process. Since the losses occurred, he said the assistance has been amazing.

Jay said he received five head from Heifers for South Dakota, which accepts cattle donations and distributes them to producers who suffered losses from the blizzard.

But the most impactful donation came from a handwritten letter and a $2,000 check from Anselmo-Merna School of Merna, Neb.

“I have no idea how they got our name,” Jay Stomprud said. “They heard we were fourth-generation ranchers with three kids, and they selected us to donate to. That was just unbelievable.”

The Jorgensen ranch, near Meadow in the northwest part of the state, received a visit from Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA’s presiding bishop, and Bishop David Zellmer, of the South Dakota Synod, ELCA, after the storm.

Aside from the bishops, the National Lutheran Disaster Response and South Dakota Lutheran Social Services representatives came to the Jorgensen ranch for a tour, held on Jan. 15.

“We don’t want a storm ever again, but we would repeat this good experience with the national and South Dakota bishop and everyone coming,” said Janet Jorgensen, a native of rural Mount Vernon and 1964 Mitchell High School graduate. “They were very interested in being on the ground level. They just kept saying ‘wow’ over and over.”

Most of the producers interviewed for this story were not willing to share the amount of financial assistance they’ve received, but said the aid has been outstanding overall.

“Even the cards, the care baskets that people who hear the story or read about it and saw it, you can’t even describe it,” Williams said. “The hardest thing, and it’s a pride thing, is to accept the donations. You always feel like someone else had it worse than you did, and you feel guilty about receiving things. But you know you have to have it to get by. You don’t want to take it away from someone else who might need it worse.”

Williams received 10 head of bred heifers from the Heifers for South Dakota program, and explained the banks he’s worked with have been willing to extend credit. Although, even with the new farm bill, he thinks he’ll be lucky to get back 75 percent of the total value of cattle lost in the storm.

“I think when it’s all said and done, we’ll all be OK,” said Williams, who added dealing with the storm’s aftermath is the toughest situation he’s ever been dealt while in the business. “We’ll have some losses to our bottom line, but as a whole, it’s going to keep us in business. We’ll move forward and we’ll stay optimistic.”