Dawn Wink: Dewdrops

Landscape, Language, Teaching, Wildness, Beauty, Imagination

The Blizzard that Never Was – and its Aftermath on Cattle and Ranchers


Calf on my parent's ranch.

Calf encased in snow.

The worst blizzard in recorded history of South Dakota just swept through the state. Tens of thousands of cattle are predicted dead and the much of the state is still without power. The Rapid City Journal reports, “Tens of thousands of cattle lie dead across South Dakota on Monday following a blizzard that could become one of the most costly in the history of the state’s agriculture industry.”

The only reason I know this is because my parent’s ranch, the setting for Meadowlark, lies in the storm’s epicenter. Mom texted me after the storm. “No electricity. Saving power on phone. It’s really, really bad….” She turned on her phone to call me later that day. “There are no words to describe the devastation and loss. Everywhere we look there are dead cattle. I’ve never seen so many dead cattle. Nobody can remember anything like this.” Author of several books and infinite numbers of articles, Mom said, “I can’t imagine writing about this. I’m not going to take photos. These deaths are too gruesome. Nobody wants to see this.”

I searched the national news for more information. Nothing. Not a single report on any of major news sources that I found. Not CNN, not the NY Times, not MSNBC. I thought, Well, it is early and the state remains without power and encased in snow, perhaps tomorrow. So I checked again the next day. Nothing. It has now been four days and no national news coverage.

Andrea J. Cook, Journal Staff

Andrea J. Cook, Journal Staff

Meanwhile, ranchers on the plains have been dealt a crippling blow the likes that has not been experienced in living memory. The Rapid City Journal continues, “Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said most ranchers she had spoken to were reporting that 20 to 50 percent of their herds had been killed. While South Dakota ranchers are no strangers to blizzards, what made Friday’s storm so damaging was how early it arrived in the season. Christen said cattle hadn’t yet grown their winter coats to insulate them from freezing wind and snow. In addition, Christen said, during the cold months, ranchers tend to move their cattle to pastures that have more trees and gullies to protect them from storms. Because Friday’s storm arrived so early in the year, most ranchers were still grazing their herds on summer pasture, which tend to be more exposed and located farther away from ranch homes.”

Dawn Wink, Wink Cattle. Co.

Cattle at dusk. 

In addition to the financial loss, when a rancher loses an animal, it is a loss of years, decades, and often generations within families, of building the genetics of a herd. Each rancher’s herd is as individual and unique as a fingerprint. It is not a simple as going out to buy another cow. Each cow in a herd is the result of years of careful breeding, in the hopes of creating a herd reflective of market desirability, as well as professional tastes of the rancher. Cattle deaths of this magnitude for ranchers is the equivalent of an investment banker’s entire portfolio suddenly gone. In an instant, the decades of investment forever disappear.  It is to start over again, to rebuild, over years and years.

Cattle have a very real money amount that ranchers and their families depend upon. This is also true of acreage and the size of a herd. This why you never, ever ask a rancher, “How big is your ranch?” or “How many cattle do you have?” These are the equivalents of, “So, how about you tell me the amount of money in your bank account?” With these losses, it is up to the rancher to divulge, or not, the number of head lost. It is not polite to ask, again the equivalent of asking, “So, how much money just evaporated from your bank account?” People outside of the ranching world often ask these questions with the best of intentions. They have no idea how these questions are experienced by the rancher. 

People have asked me, “What can we say then?” On this occasion, a heartfelt, “I’m sorry for your loss,” goes a long, long way. 

Here are two excellent pieces, written by local newspapers, on the loss and devastation to the living landscape:

Tens of Thousands of Cattle Killed in Friday’s Blizzard, Ranchers Say The Rapid City Journal

October Blizzard Taking Toll on Livestock, Ranch Radio KBHB

Wink Cattle Co., July 2013

Cattle, Wink Cattle Co., July 2013

To ranch is not a job, it is a life. In Meadowlark, which takes place on my parent’s ranch, the main character, Grace, studies the economic situation of the ranch, “By lamplight, Grace pored over the columns of numbers that represented the ranch. The sound of the pencil against the paper rose from the page and drifted into the corners of the room. She studied rows and numbers, written and erased, then written and erased again…This was all this ranch was to the bank: Expenses and income—the quantities of the former far outnumbering those of the later. 

Nowhere was there space for the things that represented the ranch’s true value. Headings such as Life, Hope, Dreams, and God-It’s-All-We’ve-Got did not exist. Nor was there room for Memories, Legacy, and Blood-and-Sweat. No item reflected the scent of the prairie grass after a summer rain. No place for the times Grace had rocked James and prayed that the land would sustain him through a lifetime. “

The prairie is a place of extremes, where the weather and land always take primacy, because they must. In Meadowlark, Grace writes in her journal, “The beauty. The bitterness. Not a land of mediocrity but of stunning beauty and brute force.”

The prairie experienced a summer of beauty, with rain we hadn’t seen in years. The prairie was lush with grass and cattle fat and glossy in the pastures. Now, we experience the brute force of the prairie, with tens of thousands of cattle dead and ranching families and communities left reeling. All of this death and destruction from The Blizzard that Never Was.

Mom just wrote, “As the days warm, more and more carcasses are exposed. So many have lost so much.”

I invite you to lift prayers and light to the people and animals of this region. When your dad’s a cowboy, this is what we do. When I told Mom there were so many people sending love, she said, “We feel it. It helps.”  

If you’d like to leave your words of encouragement and prayers in the Comments section if this piece, I will make sure they get to those who most need to hear them now.

Prairie landscape in winter.

Prairie landscape in winter.

* * *

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Author: Dawn Wink

Dawn Wink is a writer and educator whose work explores language, landscape, wildness, beauty, and imagination.

1,197 thoughts on “The Blizzard that Never Was – and its Aftermath on Cattle and Ranchers

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  13. I think the fact that I ( in Chicago .. Mind you) I clearly remember them saying there was a huge snow storm in the Dakota’s on the news that day .. Saying .. ” what? How? Checking my iphone weather channel app … Sure enough .. Nothing on the radar .. So .. Weathermen knowing? They knew .. Only we didn’t know… No news?? No articles? Comon news people grow some balls … This is about Life… Isn’t it ? Help these people .. We are Americans !!!! .. Aren’t we? What is American about changing the weather at our expense?? At OUR loss ?? …what is American about knowing it and not helping us that don’t ? There was no natural snow storm that day .. Sorry not buying it!! Has anyone thought to test the snow for chemicals ? Has anyone tested their cows blood for chemicals ? I am praying for you and for us all .. We are not meant to govern that part of life .. It’s Natures job ONLY!

  14. More than a month later and never heard of this until a lady at our health food store told me yesterday. 😦 Praying everyone is getting back on their feet!

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  16. No lo puedo creer! Es el colmo que no esten divulgando esto en las noticias. Lo siento muchisimo.

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  18. When people ask me if I miss the ranching life, I reply that I miss everything except the death loss. My thoughts and prayers go out to your family and to all those who have been through this difficult time.

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  21. Living in Pennsylvania, we heard about the freak snow storm- and then, Nothing ! Not much of anything on the news/ weather at all. I happen to raise horses, and can only imagine the heartbreak of losing SO much stock. All I can do is send prayers of hope and that the ^%(&^%(&% govn’t gets busy and helps with financial support. Best wishes- and may God bless.

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  23. Can’t believe I didn’t hear anything about this until I saw the article on facebook. So sorry for this very heavy loss, sending love and prayers.

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  25. My prayers and thoughts are with all those who have suffered this mayhem I hope everything gets better for all of you. May GOD protect and provide for all of you. GOD BLESS YOU ALL!!!

  26. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all the families that have suffered and continue to suffer. We are looking to cover this story on our online news website, AccuWeather.com. If anyone would like to set up an interview with us or provide any information, please contact me at Kristen.Rodman@accuweather.com.

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  28. the MEDIA is busy covering fluff type stories, and inane reports about nothing of consequence

  29. I can’t even imagine the depth of the losses and the sorrow that comes with it. Prayers from New Hampshire

  30. I think my daughter said it the best:”Samantha Davis
    The ignorance of some people! I too(as I’m sure many of you have) made the mistake of reading the comment section of an article regarding the storm Atlas. For people who are probably sitting in their cushy office chair in a heated building to comment about how the ranchers should have had insurance and what they “should have done” to save the cattle is beyond comprehension to me! If you know nothing and I do mean NOTHING about an industry or the hardships and work it takes please shut the hell up and don’t put your “two cents” in because you look like a dumbass! And maybe this is part of the reason for the lack of media coverage… The mass majority of people have no clue what it means or takes to raise animals and are quick to throw up their opinion of what the rancher should have done. Really!! Someone asks why did they not move them to the barns if they knew the storm was coming… That question in its self shows the ignorance of the people passing judgment. I could continue all day about these people but the importance of it all is that the word gets spread about what has happened and also the places you can go to help. I can’t imagine being in the shoes of a single one effected by this storm.

    • Very well said! At the request of our state senator I consented to having the AP contact me and found I spent more time helping them to understand ranching and the scope of the issue than anything else. I read another article about lessons learned from this storm and one of them was that we really need to educate others about what we do and how we do it. Their ‘little red barn’ storybook idea of this industry is hard to fathom! I think you hit it dead on that because they don’t understand they had no clue as to the impact of such a devastating storm. The AP asked me to send pictures. With the consent of the owners of the cattle I sent a few of the most benign photos and got back a quick reply that they were too gruesome for the Omaha World Herald readers. Our own hometown paper did not print anything for weeks except for down tree branches in town. While the citizens in town were clamoring for the city council to call out the National Guard to pick up their tree branches in their yards, only a few miles away we were dealing with horrific catastrophe. Weeks after the storm a report was issued that the storm would not have much of an effect on the Nebraska economy. We did not have the numbers of dead like S.D. but I beg to differ on that statement that Atlas will not have an effect on the Nebraska Ag economy. I know it has scarred a generation of ranchers and I hope like hell they can pull out of this. Right now only time will tell.

  31. The Back Country Horsemen of Washington have a membership of many commercial and recreational livestock owners. What happened in South Dakota is heartbreaking. We are very sorry for the loss of animals and the hardships this storm has brought to the ranching community. Ranching is a hard business that barely survives in difficult economic conditions and without appreciation from much of the urban population that is fed by it. We in BCHW appreciate the ranchers in South Dakota, and we hope they don’t give up trying to keep their traditions alive.

  32. My grandfather had a small herd of beef cattle in PA when I was a child. To lose one is heartbreaking; and this has happened ten thousand times over in a way in which you were powerless to help. May God bless you and keep you.

  33. I didn’t know until this past Sunday at church. Please, let anyone who needs to hear these words know that our church family in Missouri are praying. We are a primarily rural, farming community. Our hearts ache for the ranchers…..

  34. You will survive and overcome this….because you are tough and strong willed. In a word, you are tenacious. You are American.

  35. My prayers to the families that have lost so much. I grew up on a dairy and know how these families care for the animals. They are their lives and would do anything to keep them safe. The sacrifices they make daily is astounding.

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  37. As a meteorologist, this kind of tragedy is why I never “root for” a storm. Sure, storms are interesting, and there is a commitment to make forecasts that can be most helpful in advance… but every storm has the potential to do harm. My heart goes out to all who lost so much, knowing the hurt and pain will still be there long after the rest of the world turns to other concerns.

  38. Everyone, share with your local newspapers and radio. Maybe CNN etc will get a clue.

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