My family is among the western South Dakota ranchers who were directly in the path of winter storm Atlas. While many have heard there was a storm, many have not heard about the devastating loss of livestock, despite ranchers taking every precaution to prevent sickness and death.
This is our Katrina, our Sandy, our extremely rare and deadly tornado. The western plains are dotted with dead animals, some of them my own. Our lifestyle makes us independent, self sufficient people, and while we may not look it on the outside, we are crippled and heartbroken on the inside. This natural disaster has torn people's lives and livelihoods apart.
I cannot fully explain the feelings mixed within me that were almost physically sickening as my family and I rode in the blizzard's aftermath, searching for live cattle and identifying the dead. I did cover some aspects in a firsthand account I wrote for BEEF Magazine that can be read here.
Our animals, both those that lived and those that did not, are our pride and joy, what we have invested our entire financial means into, and what we have happily chosen to spend all our years caring for. There were countless tears as we worked to even make it to our cattle to see how they fared the storm, and many more as we worked through the heartbreaking process of finding animals that didn't survive, and still more here and there as we continue picking up the pieces and working to get past the initial shock, emotional and physical exhaustion so that we can continue to care our cattle that survived.
The thing that is shocking me most is the backlash of people blaming the ranchers, blaming me, for these losses. I cannot comprehend there being a separation between ranchers and animal lovers, as to me they are synonymous, but many feel those two words are on opposite ends of the spectrum. This is not true.
Shame on you for sitting behind the anonymity of a computer screen, in the comfort of your home or business, and slamming me, my friends and my neighbors who are too busy working through this natural disaster to take the time to reply to you, because we are out physically caring for our animals and those belonging to anyone else we happen to find.
I have yet to see one self proclaimed animal lover/hater of ranchers here physically helping and contributing to the welfare of animals, looking us in the eye, and knowing for themselves if their claims against us are justified or misguided.
Just as it is impossible to understand the aftermath of something like Katrina or Sandy, it is also impossible to understand how this natural disaster played out if you weren't front and center for it. My family, and all the people around us, did everything we ever learned in the course of multiple lifetimes in this business to prepare our cattle for the storm. Myself and my friends and neighbors all understand that an animal's needs are different than a humans in weather related situations, and that was also taken into consideration when determining what to do in preparation.
Many commenters have asked why we didn't have all the cattle in barns. There are a few reasons for this. One is that cattle, like wildlife, have the hair coats, hide and internal organs designed for the outdoors, and almost always survive weather events better in areas of natural protection instead of in barns. Another is that it is unfeasible to have the scale of barn it would require to house entire herds, and a huge barn would prevent the area from growing grass, which the cattle need more than a barn 99.9 percent of the time. A third reason is that while barns provide protection from some weather events, there is also increased concern of trampling or sickness when cattle are grouped that close together for an extended period of time, which is often more deadly than the weather event. Lastly, this being what it was, it didn't matter where the cattle were, and I feel very fortunate mine weren't in or near a barn as that is where many people suffered their greatest losses.
Another complaint I've seen in more than one place is this is just another way for us ranchers to get in line for a bailout, government subsidy, or other form of free money and federal help. Excuse me?! First, I have never, in my life, received any form of livestock related government subsidy and have no reason to believe that will change in light of this storm. Secondly, there is no government bailout that I've heard of. My husband and I had insurance, but were informed it will likely not cover our losses. We, and we alone, are financially responsible for our loss. To be perfectly clear, there is no federal government assistance occurring at all, no red cross, no army corps of engineers, and no money being dolled out to us. That is fine, and I am not complaining, simply setting the record straight on this misunderstanding.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking comment was made on the article I linked to above, where a person said that this was a better death than what the animals would have suffered at the hands of us murderous ranchers who take them to slaughter.
That person is wrong for many reasons. Yes, myself and the other ranchers of the area do raise livestock to provide meat to feed people. I understand that some people don't like or understand that concept, and that is their right. The issue I have is the belief of some that because we raise animals to feed people, those animals must be treated poorly their entire lives. That is not correct. I, and everyone else in the ranching industry invest our lives in providing the best care for our animals that we are physically, financially and emotionally able to do. If you can't comprehend or understand that, it's okay, but it is not okay for you to believe the worst of me and my efforts to provide a better lifestyle for my livestock than I do for myself simply because you don't know one way or the other.
I live in a house older than all the barns, working facilities and vehicles used to feed, work and care for our animals. I got my first pedicure for my wedding because every extra dollar I make goes into animal care. I loved that pedicure, but feel extreme guilt pampering myself instead of buying things like hay to feed our cows in the winter months, heat lamp bulbs to keep baby pigs warm or tires for the pickup we use to feed our cattle all winter, so it's unlikely I'll have another anytime soon. My cattle have the best available healthcare plan that is personalized and paid for out of my pocket, and I have the bones basic Aflac injury insurance plan and that is it. I don't do these things in a bid for sympathy, empathy or to "make it look like I care." I do them because I love my animals, and have the opportunity to make my living caring for them while they're alive. To me that opportunity is one of the greatest gifts God has given me.
However, yes, they will die in order to provide beef, and I am not a vicious person who relishes in that fact. If we could just do things as we wanted, just because, in life, I wouldn't ever have an animal die. But that's not reality, and when an animal does die to provide beef, it is done in such a way that it is instant and painless to the animal. Yes, they die, but they do not suffer, and I say that as someone who has done my own research and watched it happen. Decades of research by top universities and animal welfare individuals have created methods that make sure there is no pain for the animal.
So, to say that the animal was better off slowly freezing to death rather than going through an instantaneous, painless death was not correct in any way. It makes me irate that someone would accuse me of purposely harming and abusing an animal in any way, and especially beyond what mother nature does at her absolute worst.
It's fine if you don't know a lot about cattle, ranching, blizzards, western South Dakota or various other factors that were part of this massive natural disaster. But, that does not give you the right to attack and blame me and my friends and neighbors who are on the ground doing the hard labor picking up the pieces of what generations of our families have dedicated themselves to creating because this turned into a catastrophic weather event that resulted in loss of animals.
We did all we could before and during, and are continuing to do all we can after this storm, just as I'm sure people do when facing any major weather event. No one, not a single person, wanted this to happen, and the feelings of what it is like to look out over land your parents, grandparents, and great grandparents worked their entire lives on, and see it ravaged and dotted with deceased animals you've spent your life caring for is unimaginable.