R-CALF USA commends South Dakota locals

Farm Forum

Billings, Mont. — When Atlas, the worst killing blizzard in several generations, if not in history, bore down on the west side of the ranching state of South Dakota in early October, it was the locals who stood up first to help their neighbors and preserve their industry.

Indeed, the federal government could not be depended on to provide needed assistance during this unprecedented, early winter blizzard. The federal government was, in fact, inexcusably closed for business before and during the storm, as well as for longer than a week after the storm had left tens of thousands of dead cattle, sheep and horses in its wake.

But locals were not closed for business.

Before the deep snow even began melting enough to disclose the locations of the tens of thousands of animals it had claimed, South Dakota’s oldest and largest cattle-trade association, the Rapid City-based South Dakota StockGrowers Association (SDSGA), through its executive director Silvia Christen, sounded the alarm. The alarm was a call for help, compassion, assistance and coordination to address the aftermath of a storm, the magnitude of which was beyond anyone’s comprehension.

The SDSGA alarm was immediately answered by other local groups like the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota SheepGrowers Association. These two groups and the SDSGA put their political differences aside and worked together to do what needed to be done to help their neighbors and preserve their states’ livestock industry.

They worked non-stop with the State of South Dakota and its county governments to coordinate the unenviable task of locating and burying livestock that fell victim to the storm. They helped organize neighbors and other volunteers to locate, feed and transport surviving livestock.

As important as their logistical contributions were to the recovery effort, these three groups went the proverbial extra mile. They contacted and worked with local communities throughout western South Dakota, found volunteers and contributors in each, and sponsored eight community-wide suppers where hard-hit ranch families could enjoy the company of their neighbors over a good meal, share their stories, and begin their long journey of mending their hearts that were broken by the sudden loss of their livestock.

Arguably, these communitywide meetings may have been the most beneficial of all the efforts aimed at assisting hard-hit ranch families because they reinforced in everyone’s minds the fact that in Rural America, communities prosper only when the surrounding farm and ranch businesses supporting those communities are prosperous. Thus, when harm comes to the farms and ranches, so too does it visit rural Main Street.

On the heels of the remarkable efforts by Christen and her SDSGA association, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association, and the South Dakota SheepGrowers Association, other locals joined in a big way to provided relief to area ranchers. First, there was the establishment of the South Dakota Rancher Relief Fund by the Black Hills Area Community Foundation that has now raised over two million dollars to provide direct financial benefits to blizzard stricken ranchers. Second were the efforts of area ranchers in surrounding states who donated bred heifers to those whose cow herds were decimated by the storm.

Third came the community businesses that intrinsically know the importance of ensuring the prosperity of their rancher-neighbors. Led by the community businesses with a direct link to the ranchers themselves — the local livestock auction markets — rollover auctions were held by every livestock auction market in the state, and some were held outside the state, to help raise money to offset the financial costs of the storm. These livestock auction markets did not just host rollover auctions, they also contacted their fellow main street businesses urging them to partake in the auction.

The results were phenomenal.

At least $520,000 was raised at livestock auction markets alone through the efforts of local businesses, ranchers and sale barn owners. Fort Pierre Livestock Auction raised a whopping $101,000 at its rollover auction held in Fort Pierre, South Dakota. The business community and individual ranchers from across the country have banded together during this time with over 4,000 individual donations coming into the Ranchers Relief Fund.

South Dakota livestock auction yards and those in neighboring states know the value of maintaining a network of widely dispersed independent ranching operations in their surrounding areas. They know that these businesses are their customers and the competitive sales for these ranchers’ cattle provides price discovery for the entire U.S. cattle industry. But, in other parts of the country the highly concentrated meatpacking industry is trying to vertically integrate the cattle industry by controlling cattle supplies with contracts, thus avoiding the competitive marketplace.

If the meatpacking industry had accomplished in the South Dakota cattle industry what they had already accomplished in other states’ hog and poultry industries, competition would already be extinguished and meatpackers would require South Dakota ranchers to enter delivery and production contracts if they wanted an outlet for selling their cattle.

“This storm demonstrated that South Dakota’s local businesses, local organizations, and local government are the first and most effective line of defense in ensuring South Dakota’s economic wellbeing, particularly in the face of adversity. It also revealed the invaluable interdependence between South Dakota ranches and local livestock auction yards and other main street businesses,” said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard.

“Our membership is grateful to the leadership of the South Dakota StockGrowers Association, area livestock auction yards, and all the other organizations, businesses, and individuals who helped our industry by helping those within our industry who were hard hit by Blizzard Atlas,” concluded Bullard.