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Frozen cattle along Highway 34 east of Sturgis, S.D.
Associated Press/Photo by Kristina Barker/Rapid City Journal
Frozen cattle along Highway 34 east of Sturgis, S.D.

South Dakota staggers under early blizzard

Weather | Record-breaking storm buries cattle and horses under several feet of snow

One of the worst blizzards in South Dakota history plowed through the region during the first weekend of October, leaving a wake of destruction in its path. It will be days, maybe weeks, before ranchers can locate missing livestock, but estimates are they will find tens of thousands of dead cattle.

On Oct. 9, I was able to reach the Reinhold family, who live on a ranch in Meade County. They were in day six of a power outage, and phone lines had just been repaired the night before. “It just socked us,” Larry Reinhold told me in a sober tone. “It’s really, really bad. We didn’t lose as many cattle as some of our neighbors, but we lost a lot of horses. It’s a pretty big blow.” 

The storm began with two inches of rain on Oct. 3, soaking livestock that had not yet grown their winter coats. Winds in the 60 to 70 mile an hour range added to the freezing temperatures as the rain converted to snow and dumped an unprecedented amount for the unusual October storm. 

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In nearby Rapid City, nestled in the Black Hills, 19 inches of snow fell on Oct. 4 alone. By day three, total snowfall reached 31 inches near Mount Rushmore and close to 5 feet of snow blanketed the hardest hit parts of western South Dakota. Hurricane-force wind gusts raged through the hills, breaking branches and uprooting massive pine trees already covered in ice.

For ranchers, the storm amounts to a tremendous financial loss. A few days before the storm, 17-year-old Molly Reinhold spoke with a friend who planned to sell 83 calves this weekend. Only 33 made it through the storm. Many of the family’s neighbors lost 20 to 50 percent of their livestock.  

Some ranchers are turning to social media sites, posting heart-wrenching pictures of dead horses and cattle and venting frustration at the lack of national media coverage. President Barack Obama has yet to acknowledge the state’s disaster. Some are asking for help finding livestock that may still be alive.

In addition to raising Quarter horses and Hereford cattle on Lonetree Ranch, the Reinhold family operates Rainbow Bible Ranch, a summer camp where kids learn to ride horses and herd cattle on the wide-open prairie of their 4,250-acre ranch. Sharing the gospel is the camp’s cornerstone.  

When I called to check in today, Larry Reinhold said he had received an emotional call from his wife Robin that morning. The three older children had ridden out to the pasture where they hoped to find the rest of the camp’s horses alive. Instead, they stumbled upon a sobering scene. They now estimate a total loss of 90 horses, including 15 to 20 of their 25 best camp horses and the horse 11-year-old Caleb got for his birthday last year. Many suffocated in the massive snowdrifts, with hypothermia playing a part.

The storm took lives at random, with older horses found alive, and young, sprightly horses found unresponsive. Flicka and Majesty, two camp favorites who were around during my seven summers as a camp wrangler, made it. They were close to 30 years old. Tealight, a close pal to my son and daughter, did not. “We’re still trying to figure out how to share this news with campers,” Reinhold said. “It’s going to hit kids hard.”

For the Reinhold family and many others, the loss is more than financial. “They’re my best friends,” 19-year-old Rachel Reinhold said. “Horses don’t let you down like people can.” Danny Reinhold, 13, said he saddles those camp horses all summer long and can picture the kids who ride each one.

As state officials tally the multi-million dollar impact of the storm, ranchers are venturing out to search and dig for missing livestock, cutting ear tags during each emotional discovery to track their losses. Some cattle drifted up to five miles during the storm.

With the government shutdown and Congress’ failure to pass a farm bill, ranchers are concerned about receiving the indemnity funds many say are necessary to make it through the year. Each cow down is an average $1,500 loss, and fewer calves this spring add to the financial impact. Horse value is generally much higher.

The next challenge ranchers will face involves immediate disposal of the carcasses, a task necessary to prevent the spread of disease. With more than an inch of rain forecasted for Friday, muddy conditions will complicate the task.

Larry Reinhold is no stranger to the destructive wrath of Midwest storms. He lost two brothers in 1979 when the winds of a rainstorm overtook their fishing boat. Rainbow Bible Ranch was born out of that deep loss.

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