TEN THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT THE ATLAS BLIZZARD AND CATTLE!
People have been shocked that I’ve tweeted and posted on my Red Dirt facebook page that the Atlas Blizzard that stranded me in Cheyenne last week, has killed an estimated 60,000 – 100,000 cattle in the Black Hills of Wyoming and South Dakota. You’d think that’d be Big News. People haven’t seen it on the major networks, though someone said they had seen it on Fox News and The Blaze. It doesn’t shock me, last year’s wildfires that killed many cattle in Montana wasn’t well covered. Idaho was burned up last year too… A few years back a big blizzard hit eastern Colorado and western Nebraska, and there wasn’t too much coverage then either. We’re used to being ignored, but you should pay attention. This will affect you, whether it’s the price of beef or the zillion other products that come from cows… add this to the Texas drought where all their cows have been sold… it looks bleak.
We made it through the storm fairly easily… our cattle are now down at a lower elevation for the rest of autumn… but, I keep seeing how people make comments about ranching and this blizzard and cattle, and I figured I’d help explain some things. I do not pretend to speak for the ranchers devastated by this storm. I can’t imagine their pain at having to deal with this tragedy. These are my simple views from half a state away.
1. The blizzard in Wyoming and South Dakota is not unusual for the area, but the timing was. We’re prepared for blizzards December through April, but not this early, and this was a BIG one. It’s like the 100 year flood that Colorado experienced last month, or a category 5 hurricane, or F5 tornado.
2. One of the components of this blizzard was rain. It rained heavily before it turned to snow. Rain alone is not a problem. Rain followed by snow is ok if the cow has food to eat (food = energy) and shelter. Rain followed by snow levels from 2-4 feet plus winds of over 60 mph is, obviously, devastating.
3. Back to shelter. For 98% of the time, trees, gullies, or leeward sides of hills are enough shelter for a cow. A cow will naturally find these spots, just like people who plant trees to help protect their home as windbreaks… Cattle also have VERY thick hides and are now busy growing their shaggy winter coats… In people terms, they may be at the sweatshirt level, but not an Arctic Carhartt coat level!
4. Wind. Cattle and other animals will drift with the wind. If you’ve ever ridden a horse in a rainstorm, you know how they want to turn their tail to the wind! Walk through a windy Chicago street and you know it’s much more pleasant to be facing AWAY from the wind and it’s easy to let it just blow you along. Hopefully, some of these lost cows can be found miles away in unfamiliar territory!
5. With deep snow and high winds, you get drifted snow. Anyone that lives in open country is used to drifts! In this case, the drifts covered fences, which let cattle wander far from home. Remember, “drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds…”? However, those cattle that took shelter in protected gullies from the direct windblast, were now being covered in snow. They can handle a few feet, but some reports talk of them being smothered by the snow…
6. “Why didn’t you protect them in barns?” I don’t know of anyone that can put all their cows in their barns. Most ranchers have barns for saddles and tack, a few horse stalls, maybe a milk stanchion, and protection for their good horse hay. The only shelter we have for cows is our calving shed, where we help with their first calving. They may be in there for only a few hours once in their life. Hmmm. I wonder how many huge riding arenas it would take to hold 100,000 cattle? Who’s good at math? Remember, too, if you want pasture or grass fed cattle, this is where they live their lives, out in Mother Nature’s grasslands.
7. Couldn’t you have planned ahead with a contingency plan? Uh. Sure. But first of all, the Weather Channel on October 2 said, “The calendar may have just turned to October; however, Winter Storm Atlas is poised to bring heavy snow to the northern Rockies, some snow even at lower elevations, and perhaps the season’s first snow to parts of the Northern Plains. …(T)he heaviest snow accumulations from Winter Storm Atlas are expected to be over the highest elevations of southern Montana, Wyoming and far northern Colorado. More than a foot of total snow is likely over the Tetons, Bighorns and Beartooth Ranges of Wyoming and far southwest Montana, as well as the Black Hills of South Dakota and mountains of far northern Colorado.” They predicted ONE FOOT. Believe me, ranchers and farmers are BIG fans of the Weather Channel and AccuWeather and NOAA! This was a FREAK STORM that slammed us very early in the year. It’s hard to have a plan for odd blizzards.
8. This storm occurred while most cattle were on their summer or fall range. Winter pastures offer more protection and are usually closer to “home”. This was the first of October. November and December are when they would have been moved, depending on the amount of pasture you have available. Summer ranges are usually more open, with more grass than protected winter ranges where you feed the cattle hay.
9. What about insurance? There is such a thing as livestock insurance. I don’t know how many ranchers have that in the Black Hills. Around here, most people don’t have it because it is cost prohibitive. You lose cattle… you have to take the loss. I read one article where they said they lost more cows than calves. Losing a calf is horrible, but a full grown cow, one that you might keep for 10-16 years and get a calf out of her almost every year… is a Big Loss to any business.
10. What were the ranchers doing while this was going on? I don’t know, I wasn’t there… but there were some probably taking risks to see what they could do to help their cattle. If it’s snowing and blowing sideways with your cattle stranded, they were probably in tractors trying to fight through drifts until they got the tractor stuck and managed (gratefully) to make it back to the house, where their wives insisted they stay inside! They might have tried with four wheelers and snowmachines to drag hay to stranded cattle… but once it gets so bad… common sense does prevail. As soon as a window opened in the weather, I’m sure they were out riding a horse or some machine, because these cattle aren’t commodities. They’re what we work for. We slave away constantly to keep these cattle fed, healthy, and happy. We get up at 2 am to check on heifers, we bottle feed babies that have lost their mothers, we pay big money for vaccines to keep them healthy, we raise hay for them, we manage our grass, we get them good water, we are their protectors.
I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but I was amazed at how fast I fell in love with it. With the lifestyle, with being a partner with my husband and his parents, and now my kids and grandkids. Yeah, it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s damn hard. Sometimes, you have flashes of 8-5 jobs with weekends and holidays off and think how nice that would be… and then you walk out your door… and know. This is where my heart belongs, in the mud and dust and snow and tears and the indescribable joys that this life can bring. Ranchers are optimists. “Next time, next year… one more year…” I hope that the ranchers in the Black Hills can find that again… to hang in there… one more year.
Reminder: My normal Question and Answer post is coming up… Did you have more questions about the Atlas Storm or anything? Post it in the comment section! Answers coming Sunday!