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Fodder for Thought

I'm Looking For Silver Linings In South Dakota

Nature will always have the upper hand, so how might we overcome that?


I've been wracking my brain for ideas for the past two days on what to write for this week's blog. And as much as I don't want it to, for some reason it keeps coming back to the tragedy South Dakota experienced with the blizzard just two weeks ago.

It's not that I think the blizzard isn't worth talking about anymore, because it is. Some people seem to think there hasn't been enough media coverage of the event. Maybe those people just weren't looking or listening closely enough. From what I'm seeing awareness of the plight of South Dakota ranchers has reached a global scale as European media sources are now sharing the story.

The fact is this wasn't just any old blizzard.  The effects will be felt for some time to come. Talking to a friend about possible economic impact estimates at the losses and effects on associated industries we figured that the deaths of 60,000 to 100,000 cattle could mean anywhere from $500 million to close to $1 billion in monetary losses. That's a pretty big hit for South Dakota and not to be considered petty cash.

So far, from what I've seen, the focus on this topic has been on reporting the hardships and losses of the ranchers affected by the storms. In addition, there have been numerous efforts made to provide disaster relief and aid to those affected through fundraising. I'm glad to see the latter, because western South Dakota ranchers need all the help they can get right now.

However, at the same time, I wonder, "What are we learning from all of this?"

I contacted a colleague who I highly respect, Dave Pratt of Ranching for Profit, to get his insights as I personally don't feel I am accredited enough to give advice to anyone who has gone through such an ordeal.

I asked Pratt if there was anything he felt the ranchers affected by this storm could of done in advance to prepare. He reminded me of another catastrophic event, the 2005 tsunamis in Indonesia that killed a staggering 200,000 people. The South Dakota incident by no means compares to this, but Pratt said we should remember a Stephen J. Gould quote: "Nature bats last."

Regardless of our actions, Mother Nature has ultimate control.

From my perspective it seems to me that we have lost sight of this fact in many sectors of agriculture. Instead of finding ways to work with Mother Nature's model, we fight back with production practices that go against the grain. We constantly seem to have the need to assert ourselves over her forces. Yet, when something like the South Dakota blizzard occurs, we sit there wondering why this happened and why we couldn't have done more.

Maybe insurance would have helped. At least that way those affected could have covered their losses. But then again, insurance might be too expensive and never an option in the first place. With the government shutdown, it appears that any form of disaster aid from USDA will be a long time coming.

But for those who heed the warnings of the South Dakota blizzard, Pratt suggests two things that might protect you from financial hardship if affected by such an event.

Diversification of enterprises is the first. As Pratt says, not having all your eggs in one basket may be a wise strategy. That way if something happens to one enterprise, in this case cattle, the business owner will have an alternative source of income. He suggests off-farm investments might be one option.

The second suggestion Pratt offers is to examine which cattle survived the storm and which did not. Was there something about those that didn't die that made them different? Maybe there was nothing special. Maybe they were just lucky and it had nothing to do with them. But it is worth considering if by chance hardier genetics was a factor.

Pratt adds that at one of his recent Executive Link summits one of the speakers mentioned the increase of extreme weather events will continue to become more frequent and more extreme due to climate change. I hate to think this way but there is a chance that this storm and the drought experienced in much of the US in 2012 and 2013 could be foreboding signs of what is to come.

Benjamin Franklin used to say, "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."

While in this case, extreme weather events can't be prevented, maybe we can be better prepared. Those producers affected who are forward-thinking are likely doing just that, or will be.

When situations like this happen we must analyze the factors leading up to, during, and after closely. Among the chaos, heartache and tragedy there must be a lesson to be learned which, in the future, could help us survive and succeed in the business.

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