Ranchers in southwestern North Dakota and in South Dakota continue to find dead cows and calves in the wake of the weekend storm as up to 2 feet of snow melts away and they can search more carefully.
The fatality count of animals that suffocated, mired and drowned in stock dams or dropped in exhaustion has not yet been tallied, partly because ranchers still haven't been able to get to all their pastures and partly because the federal shutdown leaves them without a reporting agency.
In the meantime, ranchers should carefully document and photograph dead livestock and bring in an independent third party to verify the deaths.
That's advice from North Dakota Farmers Union president Woody Barth, who said the government shutdown means ranchers have no one to report to now and no current livestock program to support their financial losses.
Barth said ranchers should have a local veterinarian, their county agent, or their bank loan officer on hand to verify livestock fatalities. He said the information will be necessary if a new farm bill including a livestock indemnity program is ever passed.
Ranchers with livestock losses should schedule a meeting with their local Farm Service Agency when the federal shutdown is lifted.
"They need to make sure those records are stored within the FSA," Barth said.
It will be several days, up to a week, before ranchers can get a true and clear picture of their losses.
Dan Christman, a Hettinger rancher, said his family found 20 cows and 18 calves — most of them dead — mired down and many drowned in a stock pond a few miles south of his headquarters. "It was a pretty pathetic sight," he said.
Besides the lost value of the perished animals, he's left with an assortment of cows without their calf and calves without their mother cow.
"That's just the ones that we found (Saturday). When we go out, we find another foot sticking up, or a black spot in the snow. Until it melts, no one knows how bad the death losses are going to be," Christman said.
Meade County (S.D.) Sheriff Ron Merwin, said cattle deaths in his county in the Sturgis, S.D., area are "So much, I don't know where to start."
He said some ranchers are reporting fairly minor losses, though he's heard of others who have found between 200 and 300 dead animals.
He said the storm caused animals to drift and some wandered into downtown Rapid City, S.D.
"They're trying to get them rounded up and see whose are where," he said.
The Meade County Commission held an emergency commission meeting Tuesday to declare a disaster situation.
In Lemmon, S.D., Todd Campbell, executive director of the Grand River Grazing Cooperative, said many ranchers in the association were still unable to get out to their cattle Tuesday.
The area was especially hard hit by the storm and Grand River Electric Cooperative and phone co-op were dealing with widespread damage from the storm. Campbell said many ranchers are still without phone service.
Campbell said he doesn't expect firm numbers until early next week. "The ranchers' main concern is trying to get to the animals and it's hard with all the snow and moisture," he said.
National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson, of Tuttle, said livestock losses in South Dakota are estimated at 15 percent to 20 percent of entire herds.
He said the lack of information and support for ranchers because of the shutdown is worrisome.
"I am deeply concerned for the future of our industry if this situation continues," Johnson said.