The Atlas Blizzard


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!

cattle out of snow


The Atlas Blizzard — 96 Comments

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  5. I cannot say how much I appreciate the fine blogs and reports I am getting. As a small rancher in ohio I can only imagine the pain these families are going through. As far as the response from our national leaders if these states had a large number of electoral votes Air Force one would have done a fly over and photo ops would have been done.

  6. As I sit here, tears streaming down my face, I feel compelled to comment. I had the privilege of riding in the Washike Wilderness, Wyoming, the LU Sheep Ranch, Shoshone National Forest, Custer and other areas of Wyoming and the Dakotas and have returned three times. It is Heaven on Earth and I fully understand the impact of this storm on the beautiful cattle that graze there and the people who care so deeply for them. Thank you, Sara, for taking the time write this blog and explain the hopelessness of the situation and the horrible impact this has had on the tough people of the plains. It breaks my heart when those who do not know the situation take to the internet to pass judgement. No one blamed the Sunami victims for being near the beach or the people of New Orleans when Katrina hit the city. A storm of this magnitude is unprecedented in this area at this time of year and, as you said, the cattle were not “haired up” in their winter coats yet. It is a tragedy that will eventually reach the ignorant people who enjoy their steak and potatoes.

  7. I wish all Americans understood what it means to be a farmer or rancher and how vital agriculture is to our lives and futures. It is disgusting that the news would rather show celebrities and recent murders in big cities than the survival of the heart of our country!

    Thank you for taking the time to write this blog and share the information. I am very saddened for those who have lost so much of their livelihood. They will work harder than most would ever think to…just to get back to where they were. Our nation should be supporting them!!

  8. If your in agriculture, you had to know with the reports of the blizzard on the weather channels, that the death toll was tremendous to ranchers in the area. So I guess the reports by the national left news media is secondary. But the truth hurts and until they can’t get the wrinkles out of their bellies from lack of food, things aren’t going to change.

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  10. I raise horses in Virginia and am tied in nationally with other horse breeders, and every single one of us is heartbroken to hear of your livestock losses, the cattle, horses, and other livestock. We are all appalled at the lack of national coverage of the losses. My sister is in S. Dakota for a year living up a canyon near the Black Hills. She lost power for many days and was totally unprepared for this early storm but made it through, thanking God for the quick warmup. I think that all of us who spend our lives growing up our livestock and giving up everything “9 to 5” to do that absolutely understand the devastation of your heart-wrenching livestock losses. We all hope that family relationships stay strong and that no one goes under because of this awful situation.

  11. Thanks for the info. We are a Colorado family raising grass fed and finished meats, and we just heard about this devastating disaster. Appalled by the lack of news coverage. Our hearts go out to all of our fellow ranchers.

  12. I used to live in Philip now I’m in Texas. I was saddened by the devastation that the ranchers are going thru. People here in Texas did not understand the reason so many cattle were lost. I explained it to them and then they understood. They thought a blizzard was normal in S.D. I have reposted all the articles that have on Facebook so that friends of mine around the country will know what the ranchers are going thru and my friends repost it. So let everyone know what the media doesn’t get out there are caring people that are spreading the word. Prayers go out to all that were affected by this horrible storm. Thank you for telling everyone what ranching life is really like.

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  14. For those city folks that criticized lack of preparedness… one could say the same about hurricanes, & other acts of nature! Don’t judge until you’ve walked in someone’s shoes!

  15. Why Was It All We Saw On The National News Was The Government Shut Down? NOTHING Was Happening. Focus On Something That Was Affecting The Country Maybe Even The World. These People Were Put On Earth To Feed The World. They Spend Vast Amounts Of Their Time With These Animals. Their Kids Are out there With them Learning Compassion Responsibility Purpose Humanity And Countless Other Admirable Traits Our Kids Never Get Passed By For Jobs Every Employer Out There Wants A Midwest Kid With Integrity We Are What Everyone Wants To Be God Bless You all

  16. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins… are South Dakota ranchers and this has really torn at my heart. I’m trying to bring awareness within my own social circle and wanted to know if you would allow me to crop your photo to use as a Facebook cover. I would include a link back to your page on my timeline. Please let me know if this would be okay. Thanks!

  17. Thank you for your explanations of how and why cattle (and horses) lost in the storm. We were on I-90 in South Dakota on Oct. 9 and saw some of the dead cattle along the interstate and in the median. So sad.

  18. No one can really understand unless you’ve worn the shoes and you’ve been a rancher, a ranch wife, or owned a ranch I could identify will all of your comments because we have been there done that and our hearts and prayers go out to all those affected by this storm. We have lost animals once a bunch of calves in a freak spring storm while trailing to our mountain pasture. And another time a bunch of heifers that fell threw the ice on the river. You feel the loss, sad for animals and the income loss is devastating.

  19. So…how do they deal with all the dead cattle? Seems like an overwhelming and heartbreaking job due to the vastness of this disaster. I also do not understand why I know about the cyclone approaching India, but had to find out about this on facebook! Not that me knowing everything that happens would change anything, but it would tell the people affected by this storm that they matter and the world is also concerned about their plight. Simply…”You are not alone and we care.”

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  21. What affects one affects all. The rib steak I dearly love will probably rise even higher in the store than the $9.95 I see now as I pass by for the hamburger at $4.95. This was a horrible tragedy, and I hurt for the people who lost so much.

  22. Thanks Carol for telling the story- If your readers truly are wanting to help in some way I found this where 100% of the donations are given to the folks. I pledge $50.00 (the same amount I gave to Ranchers in Colorado) OR “Rancher Relief Fund” at PO Box 231 in Rapid City, SD 57709. Make checks payable to “Rancher Relief Fund.”

  23. As a 40 some year resident of the Black Hills, having grown up on a ranch I watch with much interest when things are happening back home… Indeed ranchers are invested in their livestock, their livelihood…It appalls me to see how many folk have no idea of the goings on in their world and how it will guide their future… I have watched this storm coverage more on FB than anywhere…A very dear friend was critically injured in a 4 wheeler accident while moving cattle in preparation for the storm… plus the Iowa tornadoes…God bleee all of you!!!!!

  24. Well said. Thank you for all the factual information for people who do not know about ranching and farming. We did not lose too many of our cows but our hearts still break for those that did. Sending prayers for strength and comfort for all involved.

  25. I was also a city girl 43 years ago and it took me a while but also fill in love with country living, ranching. Your explanation was to the point. There are people that think their meat and milk come the store cooler, and don’t even know about cattle.As far as the weather the weather channel showed up to 4 days ahead that western SD was to get 18-24 inches clear across the state then down sized to just east of Rapid City. I heeded the warning and winterized everything outside. But we received 24-36 inches with 5-9 foot drifts.
    But thank you for explaining how ranchers live. People should spent 1 week with a rancher and try to keep up with them 24/7.

    • Five to nine foot drifts! Wow. I remember once in high school in Casper we had a storm like that… but I know it wasn’t in October! Take care.

  26. I loved this ! ty for posting it! im sure this will help lots of others understand more also. My only question i have is this.. was there a way to save these cows in the sense take them to the butcher? or is there only so long before that can be done? sorry if i sound heartless.. but for some strange reason that was the one thing that popped into my head, and of course you can’t just ask a random person this.. again TY for the post, and for allowing people to ask other questions.

  27. A friend posted a link to your website article about the Atlas storm. I wanted to let you know I thought your account was excellent and a lot of good points were covered. The multitudes who live the city life seem to see the rancher as the “evil spoiler” of public property, or the romantic cowboy of lurid novels. It takes another rancher or someone living side by side with them to understand how so many hours of every day are concerned with the care,feeding,and well-being of our livestock. Whether they enable us to pay the bills or not!
    Thank you for speaking for all of us. I’m glad to be introduced to you website.
    Lory Greer

  28. Your article is well written. You depicted the plight quite well. The devastation was covered in the media. Having been on the rescue side of a number of hurricanes, I share the thought that you mentioned. Where are the rescuers with all their technology and resources? How can this happen to us? The answer is that mother nature is so vast and so unpredictable….crews with resources can’t respond fast enough…..God Bless, tomorrow always comes…..

  29. Thank you so much for explaining this tragic situation so eloquently. I feel ill to think of the nasty conditions ranchers must have faced to try to help their cattle. I hope they will qualify for some emergency government funding to help them re-start where necessary. (I hope this isn’t naïve of me to say… I don’t live in the States and am not aware of your current state of government.) Anyway, I am just so sorry for them and my prayers and thoughts are with them. Again, thank you for this informative article.

    • With the current government shutdown, the way I understand it, is that they wouldn’t get government help unless the government passes the Farm Bill and applies it retroactively. Many ranchers aren’t real keen on government help anyway… but with the scope of the disaster, they may have to be this time.

      • One of the reasons I think many farmers/ranchers are not keen on gov’t “help” is that it usually comes in the form of loans and who can afford loans when their source of income has been lost?! Any “help” is also so little for so few and it requires a mountain of red tape and paperwork to try to get it.

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  31. Thank you. That was so well written. I have been looking and reading all I can about this storm and how it has affected this region. So many times all the media attention goes to the east and west coasts of this country, that the huge, magnificent, most real part of this nation and its great people, go unrecognized. Or with little significance.
    It’s also interesting to see how different us livestock folks raise and keep our animals according to our geography and purpose!

    Take care American West!
    From Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland

    • Laure, I find the variety of ways to care for livestock interesting as well! I hope you return and visit my blog and see some more of Wyoming ways!

  32. What an excellent article for all those people who live in the city and are blaming the ranchers for this disaster. We were out in that blizzard with our cattle. You couldn’t see a foot in front of you but we were out there taking a calf sled and hauling out square bales to the cows around the shelters. Our cows and calves had shelter, food and water and we still lost a cow that just dropped right after the storm,even though we tried everything to keep her alive (special nourishment) etc. she didn’t make it, she was only two years old. Due to the cows being by the shelter we had a smaller calf get trampled in the mud and slush. But Thank God we were lucky. My heart goes out to all those ranchers who lost such substantial losses of livestock. It just makes a person sick inside. This was the nastiest storm I have ever seen. Praying for all those ranchers whose losses were 100x’s more than ours.

  33. First of all I really feel for all the ranchers impacted by this. My family does not ranch but we are good friends with many ranching families around Aladdin and Beulah Wyoming, and other places. This kind of loss can set a ranch back multiple years.

    I would like to mention that the Nation Weather Service was indeed predicting very close to the amount of snow we did receive on Tuesday and Wednesday. I know because I follow their updates on Facebook and their web page. After reading The Signal and the Noise (a book about forecasting) I learned that the best forecasts are directly from the NWS.

    Even given this early warning I can also appreciate the fact that ranchers could not get tens of thousands of cattle back into barns or near pastures in time. This storm truly was unique. I am only 39 but I have never seen anything like it. I have read of people calling it a 50 year or 100 year storm. I fear we are going to see more and more erratic weather like this. Of particular harm was the fact it was so heavy and snow early.

    • On October 3rd, NOAA (National Weather Service) was predicting 5-11 inches of snow, not the 24, 36, and 48 inches that we received. I checked my Facebook status to make sure the date and amount predicted were what I had ‘posted’ before the storm turned to snow.

      • I think we are probably splitting hairs here, but I will admit that based purely on the numbers you are absolutely right.

        Here is the Wednesday, October 2nd map they posted to which I was referring with my comment. There I see Rapid City in the 12-15 inch range (window ending Sat 6pm), and I see a lot of areas like the Beulah area (which I mentioned) in much higher total areas. Something else I learned from The Signal and the Noise is that the NWS treats these like they are probabilities, and tries to convey that. So for Rapid City our 72 hour predicted total through Saturday afternoon fell in their 12-15 inch range, but I took that to mean an average or mean prediction where some of their models were probably predicting higher and lower. It is hard to nail down a snow total here in Rapid City, but to go back to the NWS they are claiming 22″ through the weekend. That 12-15″ 72 hour window ended on Saturday afternoon, and I am not really sure how much snow we got that second night but it was obviously the least of it. I also saw that they claimed 19″ in 24 hours of the storm. So while they shot a little low for a storm that turned out to be extremely dynamic, I don’t think we can knock them too much for their forecast. Of course even 12-15″ of wet, October 4-5th snow would probably have killed thousands of cattle. I don’t think anyone should be knocking cattlemen for not getting their herds to safety (what naive comment I have seen on some national sites about this!) and also the weather people actually came pretty dang close.

        I also wanted to mention I enjoyed your blog post, and have since seen a lot more national coverage so at least the national media are catching on. I have seen quite a bit of coverage on NPR and PBS, and NBC Nightly News had a segment on last night. Hopefully we can get some help for these ranchers.

  34. Another thing is that many folks don’t realize that ranchers and farmers truly care about their animals. Despite the fact that they are a “crop” that will be harvested at some point, they treat them with respect and provide them care, and do not want them to suffer in any way.

  35. Thanks for writing this excellent article. I grew up on a farm and ranch in Nebraska and went through a storm similar to this but in April, when we expect them. I know the cows did not have their winter coats on yet, and my heart breaks for what they went through. We also know that most of our country is made up of city folks who don’t care and who honestly don’t understand where their food originates!

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  37. Am I the only guy having read this? Great blogpost about the reality of ranching. I have lived in the Dakotas for a while and have friends in the Black Hills and in Colorado, who lost cattle in blizzards. Your observations are spot-on with their sentiments.

  38. i live in southwest wyoming and have been keeping up in this story as i have a friend who is a Cattle rancher in Sundance.
    thank you for the post and informtion

  39. Thanks for writing, so many do not understand the world of agriculture and it is to everyone’s lose. I will pass this along and if only one person get it, it’s one more.

  40. I really don’t understand why there isn’t coverage of this. Usually the LA Times (I live in the LA area) has something. All I can say is I’m just so sorry. Sorry for being ignored, sorry for the ranchers’ losses and sorry for those animals.

    • Because there were supposedly too many other things that were deemed more important. All the news stations are focused on “The Shutdown.” And honestly, who pays attention to the Rural States? People in the metropolis areas don’t/won’t/can’t make the connection of farm to store. They are too many generations removed from rural life and many have never even left the city. I have lived nearly my whole life in North Dakota. This isn’t nor will it be the last time that something catastrophic has happened out here and no one knew about it. Two years ago, an F3 tornado ripped through the country side–but no one reported about it–an F3!!! Why? Because only ten people were affected by it. Only two homes were completely destroyed. Not enough people to matter. That’s just how it is.

      • SAdly, Andrea, I know that what you say is true. It is tragic when people don’t know the connection between their daily life and the earth. I’m a spinner and a weaver and for years I went to elementary schools to teach kids about spinning and that wool came from sheep. The kids enjoyed it, but it was the moms who were the most surprised and interested.

        You’re also right about the numbers. A whole bunch of people have to be hurt for it to be news. I’ve experienced that in my area, and we’re suburban,no longer rural, but we’re also not Los Angeles. So, three people injured in a car accident in LA will make the news. Same number in Orange County won’t.

      • Andrea, thanks for your concern. There are getting to be more and more ag bloggers out there, attempting to share the connection of pasture to plate! We’re trying!

  41. This is a great article. It has a lot of information in it that I don’t think a lot of people realized. Keep up the good work.

  42. Thanks for the article Carol. I’m so disappointed that hasn’t been any coverage of this. Thanks for all the insights and information. I’m from dairy country…which is VERY different. My heart goes out the ranchers who lost so much, and who will feel that loss for years to come.

  43. Carol ~ I’ve been a “lurker” on your blog for some time now and so appreciate the daily insights you share, both the mundane and the magnificent. My family moved to Wyoming 36 years ago and I feel like I still have a whole lotta catching up to do on what it means to make a life in the remote regions of this glorious state. I enjoy the privilege of eavesdropping on you & your family. God bless!

  44. The blizzard was so tragic for the ranchers….but also the cattle. What a horrible way to die…freezing to death, starvation, suffication….

    God bless all the ranchers and cattle. Hugs to all!

  45. Thank you for your insight Carol.

    I know how invested ranchers are to their livestock. Yes, sometimes the public just see numbers – 10,000 or 5,000 or 100,000 – to some people that is OH WOW, or OH really, but to a rancher – they know these animals – that loss is felt for years. And it is a double fold loss for them – the loss of animals they care for – and then the loss of income. Cows they lost – and the calves that A) would have been sold for income or B) became breeding stock for the next 5 or more years yielding more sales or stock -> it is all so very sad.

    Eventually we will see this economic impact at the grocery store or leather good products or any bi-products that uses these animals. Hugs….

  46. Hello Carol, Thank you for all of the information about the cattle and the storm. My heart aches for those suffering loss. I have read you for many years and enjoy your “true north” approach to life. It is shocking there has not been coverage of this devastation.

  47. I agree with Sara, you just did a wonderful job of sharing with the world a bit of the reality of growing the beef that graces so many meals. It is hard to breath, lot less see while I read these few articles that I find on Atlas and the Black Hills.

  48. AMEN Carol! I had goose bumps reading your last paragraph! I’m appauled at how the news channels and even the Weather Channel is not covering this! Wake up people! Do you NOT know where your food comes from! My heart goes out to the ranchers in South Dakota and I hope they will just hang in there and take it day by day. Thank you Carol, for being a voice for ranchers everywhere:)

    • The Weather Channel did cover this… sorry to have missed them in my initial post. They had one guy in Casper, Wyoming, that I knew about. I just don’t consider them a “major network”. Thanks for caring so much Sara, it is appreciated!

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