RANCHER: ‘Why was this storm such a big deal?’
By Jody Price Schobel
Recently, I was searching online for news about how the Atlas blizzard had affected South Dakota ranchers. After much searching, I came across a couple of short articles on major news sites. I made the mistake of scrolling down through the comments section and what I found there was very disheartening.
It was quickly apparent that were a lot of misconceptions about the storm itself and ranching practices in general. I blog occasionally about my family’s cattle ranch in Wyoming, and hoped I might be able to clear up a few of those misconceptions. I took some of the most common comments and turned them into a Q&A post.
Here are a handful of the questions and shortened versions of my answers:
Q: Didn’t everyone know this storm was coming? Shouldn’t they have been more prepared?
A: The original forecast was for significant snow, but not a record-breaking blizzard. The forecast changed from day to day, with predicted snow amounts increasing — but no one predicted the heavy rain, massive snow and hurricane-force winds until it was too late. This was like the difference between a category 1 hurricane and a category 5. It was beyond what anyone could have anticipated.
Q: Why were all the cattle out in the open? Shouldn’t they have been moved into barns?
A: These cattle are kept out on pastures to graze on grass. The pastures are very large, and often miles away from ranch headquarters. They are not kept in barns. It would not be economically feasible or practical to have barns for the numbers of cattle we are talking about. These cattle are used to the elements and generally do just fine outside in typical weather, even typical snowstorms.
Q: If they are used to being outside during the winter, why was this storm such a big deal?
A: For one thing, the cattle were all still out on summer pastures. Summer pastures are typically farther away from headquarters and more open, so the cattle had less access to shelter than they would have had they been in winter pastures.
Q: Why didn’t everyone just move their cattle to winter pastures before the storm hit?
A: Even a few days of lead time would not have been enough to gather and trail cattle to winter ground. For example, on our ranch it takes about a week to gather and trail our cattle from summer pastures to winter pastures — and that is if the weather is good. By the time anyone realized the magnitude of the storm, they simply did not have time to move their cattle.
Q: It still seems odd that so many would die.
A: Several factors contributed to the death loss: The cattle did not have their winter hair growth yet, it rained for several hours prior to the snowfall, the snow was heavy, wet and there was just a lot of it, and then there was the wind. Many cattle began drifting with the wind and found themselves stuck in fence lines or falling into creek beds.
Q: Didn’t the ranchers try to save them?
A: They did everything they could to get to their cattle as quickly as they could, but many people were literally stuck in their homes and had to dig their way out.
Q: Don’t they already get a lot of subsidies and price supports from the government?
A: There are no subsidies or price supports for livestock. The farm bill does have price and income supports for some crops, but beef cattle are not included.
Q: How does the farm bill affect this situation?
A: There is a section of the farm bill that does set aside some aid for farmers and ranchers for weather-related disasters such as this. This money could, potentially, be used to help some of the ranchers affected by the storm. However, the farm bill expired in September and Congress has yet to pass a new one. We won’t know if disaster aid is available until that happens.
Q: How long will it take to rebuild their herds?
A: It will likely take, at least, two to three years. Many lost this year’s calf, which was this year’s paycheck. They also lost a pregnant cow and the calf she was carrying. So they also lost next fall’s paycheck, as well as the cow herself. That’s three generations all at once. It will take several years.
Q: They raise these animals for slaughter, so do they really even care about them anyway?
A: It is true beef cattle are raised to be harvested for meat, meat that feeds many people. But that does not mean we don’t care about them. We work hard to raise them in comfortable, healthy and safe environments. We respect and care for them. We work hard to make sure they are treated humanely, right up to and including slaughter. Ranchers care deeply about their livestock. They do not see them as just dollar signs. They see them as their life’s work. It’s very hard to see that gone in one fell swoop.
The response I received was overwhelming. I learned two important things after posting this. First, there are many, many people who care deeply and want nothing but the best for the hardworking farming and ranching families that feed our country. And second, despite the fact that there are many misconceptions about agriculture in this country, the vast majority of people are very interested in learning more from those that are directly involved with the industry. I think we need to reach out and have more conversations with each other. I truly believe it will make a difference.
— Jody Price Schobel is from a fourth-generation ranch family and currently splits her time between her home in the Twin Cities and her family’s cattle ranch in central Wyoming. She blogs about ranching at www.prettywork.wordpress.com.