Friday, October 11, 2013

Facing the Atlas Blizzard

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.

19 comments:

  1. Well put Heather! Thank you for representing the ranchers/livestock producers with your gift of words the Good Lord gave you, so other people that don't live this lifestyle can understand.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wow had no idea that people were even making comments such as these.....Shame on them!! Stepping into the shoes of a rancher would probably break their backs if they had to try to do the work that we do everyday. Make their minds go crazy from the worry that goes on while they are sleeping in their cozy beds at night.
    This is sickening how people can be so cruel. As far as barns go...Wow ...try putting 1500 head in a barn one night and see if you can make that happen with out killing anything in the process.
    Cows can and have for centuries survived the worst of storms and in this case some have not.
    I am so sorry for your loss! We had heard many had lost cattle in this storm. I hope that the rest of winter will spare you and yours from anymore.....unfortunately we are out of the business come the end of this month due to no land to take our cattle.
    All I can say is carry on "Sis" what you and yours are doing is making a difference in this world! And we will keep praying....

    ReplyDelete
  3. Beautifully written article!! My heart goes out to all who suffered losses in this freak storm!! Don't let the hurtful comments made by ignorant people bother you. That is what makes ranchers different, they live by a code of ethics that people who are not in the agricultural business will never understand. You will all pull yourselves up by the bootstraps and go on, bruised but not beaten, that's just what ranchers have always done!! I wish you all the best and you are all in my prayers (another one of those things many don't understand!)

    ReplyDelete
  4. Awesome article Heather and so very well written. Keep up the good work. And if you guys need any help whatsoever, you know how to reach us. Hang tough! That's what South Dakota ranching is all about. Let the "city people" figure out what living really is. We are the ones who have a life worth living.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you for writing this, Heather. I agree completely and you did a beautiful job writing the article for BEEF. Our prayers continue to go West to all the ranchers impacted.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Celeste SchuhmacherOctober 11, 2013 at 2:06 PM

    I wanted to let you know that your BEEF article was excellent! You did a good job capturing the emotions that all of us are going through. Although, I am a neighbor south of you in Nebraska and we haven't had the loses like some in South Dakota, we are feeling the same way! You are an excellent voice for our lifestyle and industry. Please don't pay any attention to the negative as some people will believe anything they are told and refuse to do any research to find what is right and wrong! Most people will never believe that we do this for the love of animals and the love of a lifestyle that has nothing to do with money. Keep up the wonderful work! You definitely have a new follower in me!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Heather, I have no words that would due justice to what you have some eloquently stated in your first article and also this response post. All I can say is THANK YOU. Know that your family is in my prayers. Please keep fighting, for your family, your livelihood, your beliefs, and last but most importantly your livestock.

    ReplyDelete
  8. What a heartfelt and well written article. Our hearts and prayers go out to you. I hope you can look past the few horrible comments and see the many that do support you and the industry.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you for such a well written and heartfelt letter. My heart goes out to you and all the rancher so who are dealing with financial loss and especially the loss of animals, cows and horses, you love. We are so fortunate to be bringing in our cattle without the horrible weather you experienced. Being January calvers, we often have miserable weather But at a time that our cows are more prepared naturally. Our prayers go out for all of you And your animals.

    ReplyDelete
  10. So well said! I'm sorry for the loss to all of the ranchers in SD! Will be praying for all....blessings from Ringle, Wisconsin.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I happened onto your site through this article being shared on FB. Wow! I have read a few of your other articles and they blessed my heart. My grandparents owned a huge dairy farm when I was young. I know dairy and beef are little different, but your articles about working the chute and worming brought back memories. I could almost smell the smells and hear the sounds. Thank you! No many appreciate the smells, but they are my childhood at my grandparents and I love them. We are in OK and so far removed from where you are. I cannot imagine the heartache and financial strain on your family and your neighboring ranchers. My prayers go up for you as my eyes fill with tears. God is still God. May you work through this difficult time and have peace.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank you for representing our ranching industry so well. Prayers are with you and all those who have gone through this tragedy. It will affect your communities for years to come. That is another thing people not in the industry will never understand.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I'm just disgusted by the national media ignoring this whole thing. I'm in New York and just learning of this now. But I was updated about Kris and Bruce Jenner's divorce. I just don't understand this country. Raising beef is hard work, I thank you for doing what you do and hope the area and those that work there bounce back.

    ReplyDelete
  14. May God bless you and your family & friends as you attempt to recover from this disaster. And thank you for responding so eloqently to the nasty comments of uneducated people. We, as ranchers, need to stick together and help each other get through this. Our hearts go out to all of you for your physical livestock losses and your emotional turmoil. Know that there are MANY people who understand how you feel and are supporting you in your efforts to recover. I hope anyone reading this will check out the Heifers for S. Dakota facebook page where people are making efforts to get donations of bred cattle to help replenish the livestock losses. God is working thru people to help you and I pray that you will see that faith materialize before you. A tragedy like this is what brings us closer to Him and I personally am dedicated to putting that faith in Him to the test by assisting those in need. We are praying for you!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Thinking of you and your family Heather! I can only imagine the work that is ahead of you, but don't worry we are all praying for you and will work to help share your story.

    ReplyDelete
  16. You wrote this so well. People are so uneducated when it comes to the Agriculture Industry. I personally only deal with row crop, and race horses. I have many friends who ranch, and deal with livestock on a daily basis. I understand how much love, and care goes into the animals. People try to criticize us for using pesticides to save our crops. No matter what we do someone will always blame us for doing it wrong. They are usually the ones who have never been around it and do not understand the business. You made a great explanation of why you didn't use a barn so people can fully understand. Some still think that meat comes from a package in a grocery store. They have no idea that it comes from an animal. It is merely people being misinformed, or undereducated. My dearest sympathies go to you, and your family. We have been impacted by floods, and natural disasters before. We all always make it through, because we have no other choice. Farmers and ranchers are a rare breed these days. Keep your head up, and keep caring for those cattle. We all know you are doing the best you can possibly do.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I am so sorry, I looked at your other photos, to see the death of your spring work, of those healthy cows and calves sickens me. I too read some of those negative comments, I had to quit reading I was so furious with the ignorant unfeeling and even bullying responses these people give in a time of such a disaster, you responded well Heather, sadly I'm afraid, people of that mentality won't change their opinion, but that's their loss, we know the truth!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Well said! There always seems to be those people who just HAVE to put there 2 cents worth in. Regardless of the fact it makes them look like ignorant Idiots lol. My grandfather ran several hundred head of cattle for 50 plus years. All my life I saw him constantly working to improve the quality of his herd in effort to make a better "beef calf". What these ignorant people do not understand is the cattle that died were not just"cattle" they were, in most cases, the result of generations of breeding. Not unlike breeding cats or dogs, it takes planning, LOTS of planning to breed beef that has a good taste and quality! For those ranchers that lost everything, that can NEVER be replaced! Some of these herds are descendants from those herds brought over by the pioneers 100s of years ago! My heart goes out to everyone effected by this storm! My thoughts and prayers have been with you all since I learned of this tragedy, on Facebook. May God bless you with strength and fortitude to get through this!

    ReplyDelete
  19. Thank you for helping to get the truth out. We ranch on the SD/WY state line and we were very lucky to come out of the storm as well as we did. We are missing a few head but still have hope. I also work full time for the Dept of Agriculture at the FSA Office in Weston County WY. My job is helping ranchers and farmers who have been hit by a disaster such as blizzards so I deal with these people at the worst of times. If you spend any time with rural people you know for a fact it's not just about the money. Since the last Farm Bill ended in 2012 there are currently no disaster programs in place to help these ranchers. And there won't be any until Congress can agree on a new Farm Bill and hopefully make it retroactive to include the losses from previous years. It amazes me the number of people who condem all ranchers for abusing their livestock. It just shows their ignorance when it comes to ranching. They have never spent half the night helping heifers deliver their first calves or rubbed down a nearly frozen new baby in the middle of their kitchen floor. And they don't understand the respect we have for these creatures whether it's a newborn calf or his pissed of mother determined to stomp you into the ground. We care for them all. As for the Atlas Blizzard it appears no mater what people did to protect them animals still died. I've heard reports of cattle dying inside barns and corrals as well as ones dying outside and one family losing everything while their neighbors came through without a single loss. It can't be explained. Just don't let the negative comments bother you - the people who posted them are obviously not worth it.

    ReplyDelete