Perfect Storm: Blizzard, Shutdown Pummel South Dakota Ranchers

Thousands of dead cattle lie in the snow after a deadly October blizzard struck South Dakota. (Image credit: YouTube screengrab from KEVN)

On the same week that a federal budget standoff shut down vast swaths of the U.S. government, a freak blizzard shut down vast swaths of South Dakota. And both disasters have combined to devastate one of the state's biggest industries.

The early autumn blizzard struck the state with unexpected fury, dumping a record-breaking 19 inches (48 centimeters) of snow on Rapid City on Friday, Oct. 4. Other parts of the state got more, with some regions reporting snowdrifts almost 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep.

As troubling as this storm was for people, the blizzard was devastating for the region's cattle. Some ranchers are reporting losses of more than 90 percent of their herds. And help, unfortunately, is not on its way to South Dakota's $7-billion cattle industry, due to the shutdown at federal agencies — a shutdown that some claim the state's congressional representatives helped to create. [The 19 Weirdest Effects of the Government Shutdown]

As the snow melted, the losses mounted for the state's ranchers, who now face the grisly task of documenting the number of dead, rotting cattle carcasses littering their land. "There are no words to describe the devastation and loss," Joan Wink of Wink Cattle Company told Modern Farmer. "I'm not going to take photos. These deaths are too gruesome. Nobody wants to see this."

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Many of the cattle died of hypothermia — winds in the blizzard reached 70 mph (113 km/h) — or were suffocated under deep snowdrifts. The week prior to the blizzard, temperatures were above 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius), and cattle did not yet have the protection of thick winter coats of hair.

Normally, the state's cattle ranchers would apply for assistance from the Farm Service Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But with that office shuttered by the federal government shutdown — now in its third week — that agency is closed.

South Dakota's representative in Congress is Kristi Noem, who, along with her fellow House Republicans, voted against funding the federal government in an effort to prevent implementation of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). She also voted against providing federal disaster assistance to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

"Nevertheless, she's at the front of the line asking the federal government for money to help victims of South Dakota's early-October blizzard," said former U.S. Treasury economist Joann Weiner in a Washington Post blog post. "It appears that Noem is against federal spending until she's for it."

South Dakota's Sen. John Thune (R) also voted to defund the ACA, and voted against proceeding with a decision to prevent a government default. "It's time to give families and the economy a break from Obamacare [ACA] by permanently delaying the law for all Americans," Thune said in a statement.

'Kids fighting over a toy'

But the state's other senator, Tim Johnson (D), insists that providing assistance to South Dakota's embattled ranchers underscores the need to fund government operations. "Like the snowstorm, the government shutdown is causing major disruptions in people's lives and everyday business," Johnson said in a statement.

South Dakota's ranchers aren't mincing words when it comes to venting their frustration with government leaders during the shutdown. "They're acting like a bunch of kids fighting over a toy," rancher Matt Kammerer told The New York Times. "They're getting paid; they ain't feeling any hardship."

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at and a producer with His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.