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Blizzard leaves thousands of cattle dead across western South Dakota


Producers, veterinarians work through staggering herd loss and animal stress.

One of the worst storms on record for western South Dakota left thousands of cattle dead this month. Deadwood, S.D., was buried under 48 inches of snow after 36 hours of whiteout conditions, 50-mph winds and driving 70-mph gusts. State veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven, DVM, says 7,300 cattle have been reported dead, but he estimates between 15,000 and 30,000 cattle fell victim to the storm.

Cows and calves were left scattered across the countryside—victims of hypothermia, exhaustion, drowning and suffocation. “A few were hit by cars when they drifted onto roadways,” Oedekoven told dvm360.

Although more than a week has passed since the start of the Oct. 3 storm, livestock owners are still trying to assess herd damage. Reporting dead livestock is voluntary and complications from the blizzard have created a variety of difficulties for ranchers. “Many are still working with no electricity and are repairing fences and taking care of the livestock,” Oedekoven says.While livestock owners try to process the emotional and economic toll of the situation, Oedekoven says local veterinarians have been assisting in the response. “Most cattle lived and have been subjected to severe weather-related stress,” he says.

Prolonged stress placed on animals, especially younger animals, due to weather events results in increased cortisol levels in the animals’ bloodstream, according to state public health veterinarian Russ Daly, DVM, DACVPM. It can have profound effects on the immune system. Daly wrote in a recent South Dakota State University Extension release that stressed cattle have a lowered ability to respond to diseases caused by viruses. “In growing cattle, respiratory diseases are often caused or started by infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR, or “red-nose”), bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV) and bovine viral diarrhea Virus (BVDV),” Daly says.

The storm also interrupted the weaning of calves. Daly says weaned calves that survived may now be more susceptible to coccidiosis, which presents as bloody stools, along with dehydration and depression in more severely affected calves. Some calves not yet weaned may not have had any preweaning vaccinations. “Long-term stress has the effect of inhibiting the immune system against infectious diseases, but it also inhibits the body’s response to vaccines,” Daly says. He has encouraged ranchers to give calves and their immune systems seven to 14 days after the blizzard to recover from the stress before giving initial vaccines or booster doses. “Vaccinations will be less effective in cattle that are still under the influence of cortisol due to stress.”

Stress has also been a factor for those dealing with affected herds during the 16-day federal government shutdown. While Oedekoven says cattlemen and veterinarians haven’t had time to sit around worrying about the shutdown—“they’re taking care of business on their ranches: caring for livestock, fixing fences, helping neighbors,” he says—there’s been a lack of guidance for those who might qualify for federal assistance after their losses.

In the past, federal farm bills have provided for some indemnity in disastrous situations such as this one, Oedekoven says. But with the closure of U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency offices Oct. 1-16, no one was available to advise producers of records that should be kept should a farm bill with similar provisions be passed. However, the South Dakota Animal Industry Board and the South Dakota Department of Agriculture are urging livestock owners to document all livestock deaths to ensure processing of potential claims. In the absence of government workers, veterinarians have been assisting producers with this task.

With roughly 700,000 cattle in the area affected by the blizzard, Oedekoven says the staggering herd loss is an extremely difficult blow to producers and the economy. “Calves are typically marketed this time of year and veterinarians are advising clients regarding their options and best recommendations for ensuring the remaining livestock are healthy,” Oedekoven says. “Cow-calf pairs at this stage are selling for $2,000 to $2,500 or more,” he says. “This is a significant portion of our $21 billion agriculture economy in South Dakota. Economic effects will be felt for years in our ranching communities.”

Those interested in donating to the Rancher Relief Fund can do so at www.giveblackhills.org.

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