By John M. Glionna
Los Angeles Times
BELLE FOURCHE, S.D.: From inside a small plane cruising over cattle country, Scott Reder spied the carnage and felt sick to his stomach.
Mile after mile, half-buried by snow, the dead animals lay huddled in groups, calves close to their mothers — carcasses by the dozens strung out along field fences and packed into ditches, black hooves poking up through the drifts like macabre stakes.
“In 20 years of flying, I’ve never been sick, but I had to let my friend take over,” Reder recalled. “I looked down and saw 120 of my cattle laying there dead. After I’d finally had enough. I said ‘Let’s go home.’ ”
Reder is among thousands of ranchers who watched helplessly as a killer early autumn blizzard that began Oct. 3 decimated 80,000 head of cattle. Calling it the state’s worst economic disaster in decades, officials say the storm has ravaged South Dakota’s $7 billion livestock industry.
On Friday, as rain pelted the region near the historic Black Hills, ranchers continued tallying their grim toll, roaming the soggy backcountry, collecting carcasses from melting snow, knowing that perhaps tens of thousands more still lay buried.
Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, called the die-off a “perfect storm” of bad weather and — amid the federal shutdown — worse political timing.
The disaster has already caused a “noticeable jump” in the price of live cattle, a rise that could eventually be felt by consumers, she said. “Beef prices will depend on how fast we can get cattle to market again,” Christen said. “If people want to help, go out and buy a steak tonight.”
South Dakota ranks sixth in the country in livestock production, with nearly 4 million head of cattle. Officials say 6,000 ranching operations suffered losses from the storm.
The blizzard hit just days after 80-degree weather, before ranchers had moved their herds from less-protected summer grazing lands. Most ranchers were set to bring calves to market — the satisfying payday after another year of grueling labor. Thousands of head had been recently relocated here from Texas and New Mexico to escape punishing droughts in those states.
“Some ranchers lost all their cattle. They’ve yet to find one alive,” Christen said. “They’re facing absolute destruction.”
Yet Washington’s shutdown has deprived people of a traditional safety net: Congress hasn’t passed a new farm bill to subsidize agricultural producers, and the lockout means legislators won’t be voting on the topic any time soon.
These days, Reder, 47, passes a federal Farm Services Administration office whose doors are closed. Like most American ranchers, he is a resilient small businessman used to tending to his own problems, with help from neighbors whose families settled the land generations ago.
Still, he’s frustrated and feels that federal lawmakers have turned their backs on the nation’s heartland in a time of need.
“We’re just a bunch of ranchers from South Dakota — it’s hard for our voices to be heard,” he said, sitting at the kitchen table at dawn Friday, drinking coffee, fielding calls from fellow cattlemen. “You see crises across the country, the hurricanes and tornadoes, and officials are right on top of it. But something of this magnitude, that has just about leveled this part of the country, and there’s nothing.”
Many residents in the conservative region had supported the government shutdown as a way to make Washington more fiscally responsible. “But one appropriate role for these guys is to lend a hand after disasters like this,” Christen said, “and they’re not here.”
Reder’s losses are steep. Out of 750 head of cattle he grazed across 40,000 acres, 200 are dead and others are missing.