Nebraska Blizzard Could Have Long-term Economic Impact

October 14, 2013 03:09 PM

Livestock losses will affect ranchers and communities for a year or more.

GRANT SCHULTE, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A blizzard that swept through northwest Nebraska last weekend could have long-term economic consequences for the region, which relies heavily on ranching, state officials said.

Ranchers throughout the northern Panhandle spent the week counting their livestock losses after an unusual October blizzard dumped several feet of snow on the region. As ranchers worked to find and recover their livestock, state officials warned that the massive losses — expected to rise into the thousands — could shake the region's economy.

Many of the cows died because they hadn't yet developed winter coats, and the blizzard was preceded by a cold and heavy rain, said state Sen. Al Davis, who represents the area. The blizzard then brought wind gusts of 60 to 70 mph. Herds squeezed down into ravines or against fences, where they froze or suffocated in massive snow drifts.

"The scope of the losses is astounding," said Davis, a Hyannis rancher who represents some of the hardest-hit areas. "What worries me is that when you have a big blizzard, and you lose some baby calves, it can be really hard on an operator. And if they're losing cows, then that's a much bigger deal."

Davis said the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency has been working to help in the hardest-hit areas, but the agency can't compensate ranchers for cattle losses. Davis said he had spoken with ranchers who had lost several hundred head, and was trying to catch the attention of groups that could contribute to a local recovery fund.

The main government safety net for ranchers who lose animals — the livestock indemnity program — is a federal program within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The office has remained closed since the government's partial shutdown began, and state officials said no one is available to answer questions about federal assistance.

Last week, Lt. Gov. Lavon Heidemann and a state emergency team met with local officials in Chadron, Crawford and Harrison. Heidemann, a longtime farmer from Elk Creek, said he was surprised by the extent of the losses. In an interview, he likened the blizzard to a storm that wiped out one-fourth of his herd in the 1980s.

"It's going to affect that producer for a year or two, and it will affect those communities," Heidemann said. "When the local ag sector isn't doing well — and ranching is huge out there — then that whole area is going to take a hit."

At least 700 livestock deaths were confirmed in Dawes County, and the number was expected to rise. Most ranchers were too busy to report their losses because they were out working the fields, said Scott Cotton, a Chadron-based University of Nebraska-Lincoln extension educator.

The exact number was also unknown in Sioux County, although the confirmed cattle losses were somewhere around 350, said Misty Skavdahl, the region's deputy emergency manager. Skavdahl said the number didn't account for sheep, horses and other farm animals that may have died.

"We still have a lot of cattle that are missing, but we don't know if they've drifted off somewhere or if they're dead," she said.

Craig Hoffman started ranching four years ago, and has already faced drought and wildfires on ranchland near Chadron. Sixteen of his cows died in the blizzard, and others are showing signs of sickness.

Hoffman, 32, said he's most worried that his pregnant cows will have still births, which would hurt his operation more over the long-term. A few days ago, Hoffman said his wife looked at him and asked: "Are you sure you want to do this the rest of your life?"

"The long-term effects are what scare me more than the short-term," he said.

The wind-whipped storm was part of a massive front that dumped up to several feet of snow on the western Plains, and caused tornadoes in eastern Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa. Officials in Nebraska said there was heavy tree damage along the Highway 20 corridor between Rushville and Harrison. Chadron and Crawford were especially hard-hit, and officials say Chadron received 10 inches of snow. In northeast Nebraska, tornadoes caused millions in damage to a business district in Wayne and injured 15.

The severity of the snowstorm, unusual for early October, caught many ranchers in the Nebraska Panhandle off guard. They reported widespread losses of cattle that froze or suffocated in massive snow drifts while out on summer ranges.

The Nebraska Department of Agriculture was encouraging ranchers to keep detailed records of any losses and have them verified by a third party, such as a veterinarian or county extension agent, in case they become eligible for federal assistance. They were also advised to take photographs and hold onto receipts for carcass-removal services, a department spokeswoman said.

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