Western SD ranch family recovers from October blizzard
CAPUTA -- It's been five months since the historic blizzard of Oct. 4, 2013.
Shawn and Kristy Freeland, of Caputa, are among some 600 livestock producers getting by with a little help from their friends. They live with their daughters, Riley, 11, and Ryan, 9, on the ranch about 15 miles east of Rapid City.
The Freelands lost 51 cattle out of a herd of 230 -- a $100,000 kick in the head.
They received 10 heifers from the Heifers for South Dakota program, worth roughly $22,000, and a total of $6,500 from the Rancher Relief Fund. And they're helping themselves, with Kristy taking night cleaning jobs in Rapid City until things get sorted out.
"We're trying to pay the bills until the cow herd grows again," Shawn says.
If the federal government's Livestock Indemnity Program comes through, passed in the 2014 farm bill, that will bring in 75 percent of the cows' value as of one day before the blizzard. That's a net of about $1,200 per animal, or roughly $61,200.
Freeland, 38, has built his ranch with less family help than other ranchers typically receive. His parents weren't in agriculture. When their marriage ended, the family split. Shawn spent his teens living in a bunkhouse behind his retired rancher grandparents' house, north of Rapid City. After high school, he worked as a surveyor.
Eventually, he bought his grandparents' 1,280-acre ranch 70 miles north, near Enning.
"I bought my first 10 cows when I was 19 and 10 the next year," he says. He and Kristy married in 2000. They eventually added a home ranch, 1,240 acres next to where her mother and stepfather lived near Caputa.
In 2006, Freeland went into ranching full-time. The couple had to "borrow and borrow and borrow" to accumulate equipment to get their ranch off the ground. Since starting ranching eight years ago, Shawn's mother, father, grandfather and grandmother all have died.
"I lost count," he says, referring to the funerals. In 2007, Freeland was in a four-wheeler accident and broke both arms.
The different year
"2013 was going to be different," Freeland says. "Finally, we were able to shift our focus back to our ranch and our own family. It felt like we were starting to get some traction again. Everything was working into our plans until that storm."
In late summer of 2012, the Freelands found themselves short on grass and hay. Fearing a deepening drought, they sold 70 cows -- about twice the normal rate -- and cut the herd to about 170.
After it started to rain in the early summer of 2013, the Freelands kept more replacement heifers and rebuilt the herd to about 230 cows. They planned to sell 50 of them on Oct. 8, and another 50 bred cows the first week in November, but Mother Nature stepped in.
As the storm approached on Oct. 3, a large portion of the Freeland herd -- 100 cows and 100 calves -- were still on the Enning summer pasture. The others -- 85 cows and 85 calves, plus 50 first-calf heifers -- were in Caputa. The Freelands had time to move the heifers into some trees close to home, along the Rapid Creek. They moved the cow herd onto a leased pasture on Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Shawn figured they'd be safe in the steep draws and hills.
"I remember the cows, circled on the four-wheeler, and I said to them, 'It's going to get a little rough, girls. We've got to hang in there.' "
The storm was worse than anyone expected -- 1.7 inches of cold rain followed by 70 mph winds and 39 inches of wet, sticky snow. On Oct. 5, Freeland used a neighbor's snowmobile to look for his cows. He didn't find the mature cows until he took an airplane ride. Their black carcasses were strung out in lines where they'd died.
"I could see a number from the air and tell you exactly what bull she was out of," Freeland says. "Number 370, the last one I found dead, had brought home a calf every year -- never a bull calf, always a heifer. Her granddaughter was right behind her, the next to the last to die." Seven cows were never found.
Miraculously, the Enning herd blew into a big draw. There were no losses and the herd seemed to have spent time in a small shed. It was "as if 'grandpa and grandma' herded them in there."
Prayers from third-graders
After the storm, the Freelands were buoyed by warm gestures of empathy.
Students from a third-grade class in Nebraska sent them a letter, urging them to keep ranching.
"In the letter, they said one of their parents had gone and spoken to them, told them exactly where their beef comes from," Shawn says. "That one was pretty emotional to read -- letters from kids telling us they're praying for you."
Several families from Lusk, Wyo., sent Christmas gifts.
The Freelands typically take a beef cow up to a processor in Belle Fourche, but the transaction happened differently this time.
"We usually get a prime rib for Christmas and we buy it from them," Shawn says. "This year, they wouldn't accept money for it. They gave us the prime rib for our Christmas dinner."
Truckers who bring the Freeland cows home from the summer pasture in Enning wouldn't take money this year. "People know, and they feel for you," Shawn says.
During the storm, Shawn and Kristy wondered whether the storm would end their ranching dream. After counting up the losses, they went to see their banker.
"The bank had a disaster assistance program, so we could borrow money at 2 percent less than the normal interest rate for two years," he says. So the Freelands borrowed another $100,000 and took out another mortgage.
Jerry Hammerquist, a neighbor, nominated them and two other neighbors for the Heifers for South Dakota program. Hammerquist says the Freelands are just the kind of people relief programs should help keep on the land.
"He did absolutely nothing wrong in the storm," Hammerquist says. "He got caught like everybody else did; he's a great operator."
Doing some good
Calving season started the last week of January, and was continuing into early March. That's helped raise spirits.
The girls start their day helping Shawn with cattle chores. Even when it was 15 below zero in early February, they were out there. Ryan was breaking ice on the waterers. Riley was opening gates and learning how to drive a tractor-loader, helping strip netting from big round bales.
"I'm learning a bunch more about the cattle business, what my dad's trying to accomplish on this place," Riley earnestly explains to a visitor. "Because I want to be in agriculture. I want cows. I want to be able to know the grasses and stuff like that. My dad's teaching me all that stuff."
Shawn says he and Kristy haven't figured out what the losses will mean.
"We know we're probably going to be OK through the winter," he says. "We might sell more cows. I might get a job while the herd builds up. Several things have crossed our mind, but we're not sure where to turn yet. We're living day-to-day, and thanking God we still have what we have."
Shawn says the financial setback hasn't changed the family's spending.
"There's not a whole lot of spending that goes on anyway," Shawn says. "We're kind of frugal."
To make ends meet, Kristy took a job working three nights a week cleaning medical offices. Two years ago, Kristy quit an investment office job so she could home school the girls during the day. She wanted to challenge them academically and give them time on the ranch. She says she wouldn't give that up.
Shawn says the storm did a lot of bad, but it also did some good. "People who at one time were all for themselves are all for helping everybody now," he says. "It's really made everybody a lot closer I think."