Send in the Pregnant Cows? Not So Fast, Say South Dakota Ranchers

After a terrible blizzard, the proposal to import 10,000 pregnant head of cattle from neighboring states may complicate an already difficult situation

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Kristina Barker / Rapid City Journal / AP

A cow that died in the autumn blizzard lies in the snow along Highway 34 east of Sturgis, S.D., on Oct. 7, 2013.

More than a week after an unseasonal fall blizzard likely killed tens of thousands of cattle in western South Dakota, Montana ranchers are working on a proposal to bring in 10,000 pregnant cows by the end of the year to help ranchers restock. But it might complicate things even further.

Kerry White, a Montana rancher and executive board member for advocacy group Citizens for Balanced Use, is helping identify fellow cattlemen willing to part with pregnant cows so South Dakota ranchers can quickly replenish their stock. Bringing in pregnant cows would not only replace this year’s stock, but it would also give ranchers calves in the spring that could then be sold later in the fall.

But the logistics of getting thousands of cattle across state lines would prove extremely difficult. South Dakota has strict regulations, including branding requirements and health inspections, not to mention the logistical problems of transportation to and apportionment among affected farms.

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“It’s not quite like sending a loaf of bread,” White says. “And I’m sure the cattlemen’s association [a South Dakota trade group] is scared they’re going to get a bunch of trucks with people willing to donate cows.”

Montana ranchers’ generous offer could also create a logistical nightmare for a state still trying to clean up in the aftermath of the blizzard. Dr. Rosie Nold, a South Dakota State University agriculture professor, says the storm was unprecedented for that time of year. Because the snowstorm came in early October, the cattle hadn’t yet grown coats thick enough to ward off the cold.

Since then, wet and muddy conditions have hindered much of the clean-up, making many areas impassable for state officials to dispose of the carcasses.

“Talking about introducing some new animals into their herds that may or may not be acclimated to South Dakota’s weather when winter is bearing down is a little too much to think about at this point,” says Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association. “We don’t have a good mechanism in place to do that.”

Instead, the association is pushing for increased volunteer help and monetary donations.

The number of cattle killed has ranged from the thousands to the tens of thousands. State veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven has estimated that 15,000 to 30,000 cattle have died. But it’s been difficult to get data because the USDA employees who would have normally tracked the damage were furloughed during and after the storm thanks to the government shutdown.

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According to the USDA, South Dakota is home to 3.85 million head of cattle, the sixth largest population in the U.S. While the losses may not cause the price of beef to go up, it has devastated countless ranches throughout western South Dakota. A pregnant cow is worth anywhere from $1,300 to $2,000 at market, while a calf often goes for $800 to $1,000. For many ranchers, selling calves is the only paycheck they’ll see all year.

CBU’s White says he understands that ranchers are still in a clean-up phase and is just trying to prepare those in Montana who may want to help out in the next few months. After the first of the year, he says, pregnant cows will be too difficult to transport because they start giving birth in early spring.

“We’re doing everything to make cattle available when the ranchers are ready to accept them,” he says. “It’s not only a financial loss but an emotional one. And I think people in South Dakota would want to know that their neighbors to the north were helping out.”