By Al Van Zee
RAPID CITY, N.D. (KEVN/CNN) - The losses are being described as devastating. Tens of thousands of cattle are being found dead in pastures and range lands all over western South Dakota after the worst blizzard in recent memory.
We do want to warn you, some of the upcoming video may be too graphic for some viewers.
As ranchers went out to check their cattle Sunday and Monday, many of them knew that what they found wouldn't be pretty. And it certainly wasn't. They found cattle huddled up along fence lines, along creek bottoms, and in road ditches. All dead.
Silvia Christen with the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association says she has talked to ranchers who have lost 20 to 50 percent of their cattle. One rancher near union center said he was on horseback the entire morning and didn't find one live animal.
Christen says some ranchers may not recover from the losses for years. She says though efforts are underway at the state level to get some assistance to these ranchers.
"We had a conference call this morning with the Secretary of Ag, some staff from the Governor's office, various emergency operations people and also the brand board to put a plan in place for what we can do for these producers to get on the ground and help them a little bit," she said.
But there was a bitter statement from Sen. Tim Johnson's office that the losses come at the very time the USDA's Farm Service Offices have been shut down. As a result, the senator says, ranchers won't even be able to document their losses.
The dead cattle not only represent a huge financial loss, but will present an increasing health risk as the weather warms. Thousands of carcasses will have to be disposed of in the coming days.
"There's a health hazard with those animals laying out there in the ditches and it also is just, they need to be picked up. We need to identify whose animals those are and make sure that the ranchers can compensate or account for all of their livestock," said Christen.
The blizzard killed huge numbers of cattle because of the unique nature of the storm. Ranchers say the heavy, wet snow stuck to the cattle's hair and made them soaking wet. Then, freezing temperatures and 70 miles per hour winds chilled the animals until they died of exposure. Most of the cattle will be discovered and disposed of in the coming days, but some are probably buried under snow drifts, and won't be discovered until spring.