Blizzard, lack of Farm Bill threatens South Dakota cattle ranchers

October 12, 2013

A massive storm that dumped more than four feet of snow on parts of the Black Hills in South Dakota last week has killed tens of thousands of cattle — and thanks to a delay in reauthorizing the farm bill in Congress, ranchers have nowhere to turn for relief.

Ranchers across western South Dakota are still digging out from the blizzard, one of the earliest in memory. The fact that the storm came so early in the season meant the livestock hadn’t grown their winter coats. In many cases, officials said, the extent of their losses aren’t yet known; cattle are buried under snow drifts, and some may have wandered miles away from their normal grazing grounds.

“There are thousands of cattle lost, tens of thousands most likely, but we don’t know that number yet,” said Lucas Lentsch, South Dakota’s secretary of agriculture. The economic impact of the losses, Lentsch said, will be “extremely significant” for an area so dependent on livestock.

Ranchers hit hard by natural disasters can usually rely on the Livestock Indemnity Program and other federally run programs funded under the Farm Bill. But the Farm Bill expired Oct. 1, meaning no relief measures have been appropriated.

The House on Saturday is likely to appoint members of a conference committee to reconcile Senate- and House-passed versions of the Farm Bill. The Senate appointed 12 conferees in early August. The House-passed version of the bill was delayed for months while House Republicans moved to separate the agricultural portion of the bill from the portion that funds food stamps and other supplemental nutritional programs.

The House-passed version includes a provision to expand the Livestock Indemnity Program and other disaster relief funds. Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), who wrote that portion of the bill, said ranchers are vulnerable to some natural disasters in ways crop farmers aren’t.

“For a lot of these producers, they don’t have the advantage of crop insurance programs like commodity farmers,” Noem said in an interview. “When you have a disaster situation like we’re facing in South Dakota right now, that program would come in and help [ranchers] recover a portion of their losses.”

Ranchers usually have to document their losses by photographing dead cattle. But, Noem said, the fact that the programs aren’t funded means ranchers can’t be certain that they’re documenting their losses appropriately — because the rules aren’t finalized.

“They just don’t know that there’s anything there. There’s no program, it’s not authorized, there’s no funding. They don’t know if they’re documenting correctly,” Noem said.

In the absence of federal programs, the Black Hills Area Community Foundation has set up a rancher relief fund. But once the Farm Bill passes, federal money will play a much bigger role in assisting in the recovery.

Lentsch said the losses will impact families for years to come. Cattle account for about a third of South Dakota’s yearly commodity production, or about $3.7 billion in economic activity, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the South Dakota Beef Industry Council.

“This isn’t just a crop that’s planted and harvested in the fall. When you’re dealing with ranch families, you’re dealing with generations of genetics,” Lentsch said. “This is a devastating blow, and it’s important for America to remember where its food comes from.”

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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Reid Wilson · October 11, 2013