National Geographic News
Dead cattle in a South Dakota creek.

Estimates of cattle losses are rising as the state digs out.

Photograph from KOTA-TV/Pool/AP

Irina Zhorov

National Geographic

Published October 22, 2013

Rancher Marvin Jobgen has weathered many storms in his 40 years in business, but he's never lost as many cattle as he did during the record-setting winter storm Atlas. A third of his cows, about 100, and 15 percent of his calves died. Two weeks after the October 4 blizzard, livestock producers in western South Dakota are still counting their losses and burying would-be profits in bone pits.

The storm slammed into the region after days with temperatures in the 70s and 80s, catching producers and cattle unprepared. State veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven says so far 7,500 cattle have been reported dead, but that number will grow because right now "reporting isn't high on everybody's mind."

The storm was especially deadly for cattle partly because the animals had not yet grown their winter coats and were grazing in summer pastures rather than more protected winter pastures. In addition, the ground hadn't frozen, so cattle that sought protection in low-lying areas became stuck in mud. Rain soaked the cattle; then winds up to 70 miles (113 kilometers) per hour and heavy snow froze them.

Jobgen says he found some of his cows dead behind protective barriers against the wind where there wasn't even an inch of snow. But the strain that the cold and snow placed on the animals' heart and lungs, and the resulting buildup of fluids, possibly caused many of the deaths.

Freak Storm

Atlas dumped three feet of snow in some parts of the Black Hills. "It was a monster blizzard. There's no doubt about that," says Matthew Bunkers, science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Rapid City. The previous October record snowfall in South Dakota was fewer than 10 inches, about a century ago. Bunkers says such storms are rare but not unheard of, like the monster storm that blanketed nearby North Dakota with snow in early October 2008.

Some scientists point to the increasing rate of such rare weather events worldwide as a sign of climate change and warn that this is the new normal. But Bunkers says locally they're not seeing "any evidence that they're becoming more frequent or more severe."

Some blame inaccurate storm predictions for the lack of preparedness. But Bunkers says the NWS issued a blizzard warning a full 24 hours before it started snowing. After the warnings, Jobgen moved some of his cattle into pastures where his herd has weathered previous storms without incident. He wasn't too concerned until he started finding dead cattle the day after the storm.

Widespread Losses

"It's going to be a huge economic hit," says Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. Ranchers were preparing for market; calves would have brought up to $1,000 each. Each cow will cost about $2,000 to replace, and ranchers will have more work ahead to breed cows that will do well on their land and produce the kinds of beef they bring to market, a process that can take years. Jobgen spent 30 years establishing the genetics in his herd. Some producers lost their entire herds and will have to start from scratch.

South Dakota is no stranger to winter storms, and the industry has experienced livestock losses before. However, "to have such huge, widespread losses and devastation is really something that historically not a lot of people have ever seen before," Christen says. She expects some operations will never recover.

Jobgen is 55 and says he plans to rebuild his herd, though he predicts it will take 10 to 15 years to do so. But he's concerned about younger livestock ranchers who have more loans and less established herds. "Because in 20 years they should be in the situation I'm in," he says.

"If South Dakota loses a whole generation of young [ranchers] because of one night of snow, that'd be tragic."

10 comments
Ricky Dittmer
Ricky Dittmer

I am pretty sure that the American bison that once roamed the plains would not have had a problem weathering this storm.  But we wiped out the bison, and replaced them with domestic cattle.....

Emily Brinegar Driskill
Emily Brinegar Driskill

How about we acknowledge the tragic loss our ranchers are going through INSTAEAD of bashing Nat Geo about climate change!!! Climate change is inevitable. Look at Earth's history, can we speed up the process sure. Is that the issue of this article, NO! Other national media organizations, such as CNN and FOX, failed to even air one story about the horrible tragedy Atlas brought about. The heart of America is ranching and farming. We had a devastating loss, which does effect the economy, and no one covered it. Was it because of the government shut down? Was it because people feared the environmentalists and climate change concerns? Who knows! All I know is thousands of families had a devastating loss that some won't recover from. On one site, ignorant  people blasted the ranchers for not taking care of the their animals, and accused people of lying- that all the lost animals were in inhumane feed lots. One person had the audacity to say we deserve it, beause we are Republican states!  I live here, my in-laws raise cattle. Drive trough SD and WY and tell me what  you see. You will see cattle everywhere, and not in feed lots. Our cattle mostly graze in vast open fields. Thank you NAT GEO for explaining how it really is! These poor ranchers are absolutely heartbroken, whether it was one cow or 750 it is a gut wrenching loss. Shame on people and the media for failing to cover and support our ranchers. These are tax-paying, hard-working citizens that feed our country. They deserve to be acknowledged during this time of mourning and loss. THANK YOU NATGEO for covering it!!!!!!!

Barry Zeigler
Barry Zeigler

Who are you people who so vehemently deny climate change? Why is it is such an emotional and angry issue to you? Are you scientists who study the climate and know something that the other scientists don't?  I am being serious and always shocked at the venom and anger at the suggestion that man made emissions are behind rising sea levels, temperatures, a tree line moving further north etc. Why wouldn't a magazine dedicated to reporting about our environment report such things? Was the moon landing faked?

Vincent Rubino
Vincent Rubino

Anthropomorphic climate change is an indisputable fact substantiated by significant scientific data.  If folks are not interested in science and facts, they may find more interesting reading at Fox news.

Jacob West
Jacob West

To say that NatGeo has "concluded that climate change is a real inevitable threat" or that they have "climbed on the political bandwagon" shows a complete lack of understanding. One line in the story states, "Some scientists point to..." and that is all. Nothing more.

For people that seem to have already made their own conclusions about a matter that "science still hasn't agreed on" ranting and raving about a misinterpreted statement seems a bit ironic, doesn't it? How dare they ever give mention to a theory that some reader may fundamentally disagree with, science aside!

Also, way to throw in a dose of misogyny by calling the editors "girls", Paul. For you to imply that people with vaginas are incapable of your level of intellect while your reading comprehension derailed you from even understanding the nature of the article is sad.

Keith Cameron
Keith Cameron

I loved NatGeo, that is until they climbed on the political bandwagon. Drop the Climate Change garbage.

Paul M.
Paul M.

News Editors,

You have no right to conclude that climate change is a real inevitable threat when science has only agreed on nothing beyond "could be" and have NEVER said or agreed that their own 30 year old "could be" crisis "will" eventually happen. 

Science never agreed it will but you editors believe it will. Nice work girls.

And get up to date:

*Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

*Canada killed Y2Kyoto with a freely elected climate change denying prime minister and nobody cared, especially the millions of scientists warning us of unstoppable warming (a comet hit).

What has to happen for science to agree it WILL be a crisis not just “could be”? Unstoppable warming?

Barbara Dunfee
Barbara Dunfee

@Brooks Potter  @Ricky Dittmer   Actually, some of them did.  I talked to one of the FEMA employees who was out here after the storm.  13 bison died as well, along with horses and sheep.  The sheep loss was higher than originally known or estimated.

Not mentioned in this story is the amount of tree loss, and the damage that downed trees did to the rural electric system. At least one building roof collapsed in the northern Black Hills, some rural people lost power for well over a week, and the cost of debris clean up alone in Rapid City that FEMA is covering is going to top $1 million, and FEMA funds only 80% of that -- and this is only a small portion of the costs associated with the storm.

This storm didn't just kill cattle, sheep and other domesticated animals, it also caused tree damage and downed power lines from eastern Wyoming across western South Dakota (including the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation) and the south into the Nebraska Panhandle, an area well over a hundred miles wide.  It also killed four people, one in the rural Lead-Deadwood area who collapsed when cleaning snow off his roof (that part of the Black Hills received up to four feet of heavy wet snow) and three who died in a car crash in the Panhandle of Nebraska when the driver lost control of the vehicle and collided with a semi near Crawford.

Saying anyone or anything would be prepared or could weather this storm is like saying that the East or Gulf Coasts are prepared for Sandy or Katrina because they get hurricanes all the time.

Barbara Dunfee
Barbara Dunfee

@Brooks Potter @Ricky Dittmer  Actually, some of them did.  I talked to one of the FEMA employees who was out here after the storm.  13 bison died as well, along with horses and sheep.  The sheep loss was higher than originally known or estimated.

Not mentioned in this story is the amount of tree loss, and the damage that downed trees did to the rural electric system. At least one building roof collapsed in the northern Black Hills, some rural people lost power for well over a week, and the cost of debris clean up alone in Rapid City that FEMA is covering is going to top $1 million, and FEMA funds only 80% of that -- and this is only a small portion of the costs associated with the storm.

This storm didn't just kill cattle, sheep and other domesticated animals, it also caused tree damage and downed power lines from eastern Wyoming across western South Dakota (including the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation) and the south into the Nebraska Panhandle, an area well over a hundred miles wide.  It also killed four people, one in the rural Lead-Deadwood area who collapsed when cleaning snow off his roof (that part of the Black Hills received up to four feet of heavy wet snow) and three who died in a car crash in the Panhandle of Nebraska when the driver lost control of the vehicle and collided with a semi near Crawford.

Saying anyone or anything would be prepared or could weather this storm is like saying that the East or Gulf Coasts are prepared for Sandy or Katrina because they get hurricanes all the time.

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