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'Herd of Hope' for needy SD ranchers

On a converted dairy farm in western South Dakota, a helping hand from electric cooperatives is going a long way.

Since an early October storm wiped out nearly 22,000 cattle in the region, the farm has turned into a flurry of bovine activity as a staging ground for Heifers for South Dakota, an all-volunteer program that matches donations of livestock with needy ranchers.

"I don't think anybody had any idea of how big it was going to get," said Tom Brunner, who operates the facility and is a director at Butte Electric Co-op, Newell, and the South Dakota Rural Electric Association.

"At the start, we figured we'd just get a few head of cattle and go from there. The outpouring of support has just been remarkable," he said.

Almost 180 cattle and calves were at Brunner's feedlot as of mid-January. That's in addition to 714 cattle that have new homes, as Heifers for South Dakota's aims for 1,000 cattle to more than 100 families and individual ranchers.

Almost immediately after Winter Storm Atlas, Ty and Rosalie Linger, ranchers in Miles City, Mont., sprang into action. The storm hit during a weekend and, within about 72 hours, they decided to donate one of their best-bred heifers and start Heifers for South Dakota.

From that single seed, a field sprouted. A day later, they had pledges of two heifers and a filly. A week later, they were up to 150.

"It has been so cool to watch," Rosalie said. "People's faces just light up. God was definitely a huge part of this. We could not have done it on our own."

The Lingers' Heifers for South Dakota has expanded into support from close to a dozen states.

That's helped farmers like Jacob and Melanie Rausch in Hermosa, who were the first recipients of 23 bred cows and heifer calves. Jacob and Melanie lost 44 of their 58 cows, and his family farm lost about 190 cows and 80 calves.

"Ranching is not a career for us, it is our life and I enjoy being home and working at my husband's side every day," a grateful Melanie said after the donation.

So far, Heifers for South Dakota has sent about $1.25 million in livestock to strapped ranchers. Rosalie Linger said the drive anticipated delivering another 60 head of cattle during the weekend of Jan. 25.