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South Dakota's Big Blizzard: What Happened?

South Dakota's Big Blizzard: What Happened?
Following South Dakota's severe early October blizzard, many outsiders to the cattle industry have difficulty understanding how such huge herd losses could occur. Here are six factors that contributed to herd deaths.

The severe blizzard that ravaged South Dakota earlier this month had many cattle producers and consumers alike confused – why is the death toll from this storm so high?

Especially to those outside of the agriculture industry, such a situation could be misconstrued as lack of management from farmers and ranchers. However, South Dakota State University Extension specialists Dave Ollilia and Rosie Nold explain that a variety of factors contributed to the heavy toll the storm took on cattle herds – many of which were out of producers' control.

Following South Dakota's severe early October blizzard, many outsiders to the cattle industry have difficulty understanding how such huge herd losses could occur

1. Animals were not adapted to winter conditions. Cattle will grow a thicker hair coat in response to shorter days, and cooler temperatures. But temperatures prior to the storm were in the 70s. For cattle, this meant they had thin hair coats and little protection from the elements.

2. Snow was preceded by hours of rain. A wet hair coat reduces the insulation that the hair and hide provide and increases the rate of heat loss from the body. For example, a cow with a wet hair or summer hair coat has critical temperature of 59 degrees F, while one with a dry, heavy winter coat has a critical temperature of 18 degrees F. The critical temperature is the temperature at which the animal must increase its metabolism, or burn its own energy, to maintain its body temperature. The further the effective temperature is below the critical temperature, the more energy the animal must use to maintain its body temperature.

3. Winds in this blizzard were recorded up to 60 mph. Both research and practical experience show what a difference "wind chill" has on effective temperature. The range and pastures that are grazed during summer months are typically "open" – without constructed windbreaks, and usually very few natural windbreaks. With the storm so early in the year, most livestock were still out on summer range and pastures. Thus, animals felt the full intensity of the wind.

4. The hair coat, temperature, moisture and wind combination meant the animals' energy needs to maintain body temperature were much higher than even during a "normal" winter blizzard.


5. Most of the feed the cattle were currently eating was quite low in energy. Cattle grazing lush green grass makes a beautiful picture, but the reality is that lush, rapidly growing green grass is very high in moisture and low in energy per pound of feed consumed. The unusually large rainfall in September had created this rapidly growing grass in many areas. Under normal weather conditions, cattle were able to consume large quantities of grass to meet and even exceed their energy needs. But under blizzard conditions, it was not possible for them to consume adequate amounts of forage to meet their much higher than normal energy needs.

6. To try to escape or reduce the harsh wind, cattle will walk with the wind and seek areas of shelter, such as draws and ravines. Walking through heavy, wet and deep snow increased their energy needs even more. The severity of the snow fall also meant that the animals were walking blind, and could easily fall in to gullies, walk into a stock dam or creek, or gather into a fence corner and face crushing and trampling.

With all the factors above, Ollilia and Nold explain that exhaustion and the inability to maintain body temperature finally caused cattle to simply stop and succumb to hypothermia.

"Cattle that survived the storm most likely have used up all or most of their energy reserves. This means they may need more supplemental feed than is normal for this time of year, particularly if there is added stress from rain and colder temperatures," the specialists say.

For more on the blizzard, and blizzard resources for cattlemen, click here.

Source: SDSU Extension

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