As South Dakota ranchers undertake their grim recovery from the blizzard, a cowboy’s daughter explains what’s been lost – and why it’s not polite to ask about the numbers.
“This is a tough ol’ deal,” Dad said.
In a culture that prizes stoicism and reserve, this one phrase speaks worlds. When your dad’s a cowboy, these words go straight to a daughter’s heart.
Ten days have passed since the worst blizzard on record in South Dakota ripped through the state, leaving an estimated 65,000 dead cattle and shattered lives in its wake.
“People are in shock,” Mom said.
My parents, Dean and Joan Wink, ranch south of Faith, South Dakota, in what was the epicenter of the storm.
Rolling plains unfurl as far as the eye can see in all directions. While this ranch has been in our family for four generations, my parents have lived and ranched here for the past 20 years, ranching in other parts of the U.S., including Arizona and Wyoming, in the previous decades.
This is the land of prairie and sky. Ranches spaced miles apart dot the land, containing grassland, cattle, horses, pronghorn antelope, red-tailed hawks and the ever-blowing wind.
The financial loss for ranchers from the blizzard is devastating. Cattle have a very real monetary value 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 losses from the blizzard, it is up to the rancher to divulge, or not, the number of head lost. It is not polite to ask; again it’s 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.
Each cow in a herd is the result of years of careful breeding, in the hopes of creating a herd reflective of market desirability and the professional tastes of the rancher. So 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 as simple as going out to buy another cow. Cattle deaths of this magnitude is, for ranchers, the equivalent of an investment banker’s entire portfolio suddenly disappearing. In an instant, the decades of investment forever disappear.
One rancher wrote of returning to the area after being caught away by the storm and seeing the cattle that didn’t survive the blizzard.
“I didn’t make it five miles from home before the tears started,” wrote Missy Urbaniak of Fairpoint. “A single mile didn’t pass by that we didn’t see at least one black mound sticking up from the snow. I knew it was bad, I was bracing myself for how bad, but you can’t prepare yourself for such a heartbreaking sight.
“Later, we headed to Rapid City on the New Underwood Road. We have driven that route a hundred times. It will never be the same again. I will never forget seeing mile after mile of black mounds in the snow. Gruesome. [I was] wishing the boys weren’t in the pick-up with us, but not having anywhere else for them to go. [I’m] trying to explain it to them.”
Jodi Shaw of Whiteowl described a ride through the region as “driving a corridor of death and broken dreams. No words will ever adequately explain it.” Jodi reports on her experience in a prose poem called Storm Aftermath: Moving Forward with Character and Hope. “I called my mom, my voice cracked and I just started crying. ‘Mom, there are dead cattle everywhere. The electric poles are broke off . . . all of them.’ ”
One week after the blizzard hit, Mom said, “We finally slept a little last night. There has been no sleeping.”
Stretched between the brief bookends of sleep are long days of work nobody wants to do – cutting the ear tags off dead cows, disposing of the carcasses, finding yet more dead. “There is nothing romantic about living this,” Mom said. My brother, Bo, drove from Wisconsin to be with my parents this week. Together, my brother and parents ventured into those hard places, physical and emotional.
A ranch is a world unto itself. To feel a shard of understanding for what has happened and what ranchers now experience on the plains, knowing this is essential. What lies on the prairie now along with the physical dead are the dreams, years, decades, generations of back-breaking and soul-hoping work, all with the dream of creating a life for one’s family.
The Black Hills Area Community Foundation has established the South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund to accept donations to help the region recover. More information is here.