Rancher recounts events during Atlas blizzard

Farm Forum

Editor’s note: While much has been written about the devastating losses of the Atlas blizzard, few have recounted events during the storm. Dusti Berry has written this account of what she experienced during and immediately following the blizzard to address public comments alleging that ranchers did not do enough to save their cattle.

October 5th, 2013 is a day that will go down in history. The damage caused to ranchers in western South Dakota is absolutely unfathomable. But there are some misconceptions as to this damage coming from people that aren’t directly involved in the industry.

It all started on a Saturday. It was cold and blowing — what most would consider “blizzard” conditions. A phone call came to the house saying we had cows out. They had drifted with the bitter southeast wind and had walked over the fence where the drifts covered it. One had been hit on the road. My dad and I set out that morning with no idea what was ahead of us. We found the cow once we got to the pasture. She was lying in the road ditch on her side, blood smeared beneath her, and we could see that she was too far gone, but she was still alive. Most likely her back was broken. I sat down right there in the snow, and I took her head into my lap, smoothing the hair over her pretty red face as I waited for Dad to bring the pistol. With heavy hearts, we put her out of her misery. There was a calf with her, and though it wasn’t her own baby, he was confused by the storm and was convinced that this cow was his mama. We tried for an hour to get that calf over with another bunch of our cattle that had sought shelter behind a tree row not far away, but she wouldn’t leave the cow’s side. Finally, we let her be, and she went to the downwind side of her “mama” and lay down next to her, out of the wind but still with her cow. That was enough to bring tears to my eyes.

Another call came in. A neighbor had seen cattle headed down the highway to the south, and we knew we had to find them and see who they belonged to. As we traveled south, an even more gruesome scene began to unveil. We drove up on a fence corner with two cows lying dead there. A little more to the south, a single cow lay in the ditch, alive but exhausted from drifting so far. And just a bit more to the south, cows from the same bunch had taken shelter behind a creek bank, but it was a false kind of safety, for they were pushing each other off into the water below them. Two cows were in the water, trying with everything they had to crawl back up on the bank, but it was useless. A small bunch of ten or so stood on the opposite shore, wet and shivering. They were the lucky ones that had made it out of the water. We ran to the water’s edge, but there was nothing we could do but call the owners and tell them what was happening.

We drove back to where our cattle were, and more were coming along toward the drifted fence. We turned them back toward the wind break, and thanks to a miracle of God, they turned into the wind and went. But there was a calf stuck in the snow, worn out and shivering. Dad and I dug him out of the snow, and then I pushed him with the help of my brother as Dad broke a trail through the hip deep drift so he could get to the smaller bunch of cows behind the trees. By this time we were all soaked through to our skin, cold and shivering as the cattle we stood with, but we were not finished with our job. Back to the south we went, past the sickening scene at the creek, and farther south. We ran into another bunch of the neighbors’ cattle trotting down the highway. We called their owners, and then after getting permission to work with them we opened the nearest gate and drove the cows off the road and into the pasture. The last thing we wanted was to lose another animal to the road, whether it might be our own or a neighbor’s.

The worst was yet to come. As we pushed our way through the drifts to the south, we drove up on a string of cattle that had been headed down the highway, but had worn themselves out. A couple had lain down in the drifts, alive but barely. A little farther on, a sight that made our stomachs turn unfolded. On a flat, there were cattle everywhere, taking shelter behind the bales still out on the field and behind an old set of buildings near the highway. It was a string of at least three hundred head of cattle, their travel stopped by a fence line where they had lined up with their tails to the driving wind. We figured there were at least 500-600 cattle within our sight, easily. Dead and exhausted cattle dotted what we could see of the countryside through the almost white-out conditions of the blizzard, which was worsening despite the weatherman’s predictions that it would let up by afternoon. Our hearts were heavy at the gut-wrenching scene, but there was nothing we could do at this point other than let the cattle sit where they’d stopped and hope and pray that they stayed there.

The next morning the storm had broke, so it was time to really go to work. We saddled horses and plowed our way through sloppy, nearly impassible roads to get to our cattle. On the flat where so many had gathered, we met up with about 7 or so other ranchers on four-wheelers and snowmobiles and decided to just get them back to the pastures. We would worry about sorting another time. One offered to feed the cattle that were already in his close pasture and turn on the tanks so they had food and water. These weren’t even his own cows, but he was more than willing. The first bunch we gathered consisted of around 300 cows and calves, mostly; at least three different ranchers’ cattle were in the bunch. We moved them about a mile northwest to a neighbor’s pasture where they could pair back up and recover for a couple of days. Then we headed another mile north where yet another neighbor was moving another 250 head of cattle. This group was mostly yearling heifers. We took them another mile to the northwest and put them into our own pasture where there was hay and water for them as well. With dead carcasses dotting the countryside, we ran into what we considered almost a miracle. My brother went along with my Mom and Dad, who were on a four-wheeler, to gather a single calf I had noticed. When Jade returned, he was alone. The four-wheeler came a minute later, but still no calf. But, as the four-wheeler got closer, I noticed little legs stuck out on each side of Dad, who was driving. The stray calf I had noticed was a baby with her navel was still attached, meaning she was most likely no more than a week old. She’d been alone, not even a dead cow nearby that she could have belonged to. How she survived a storm that killed hundreds of cattle much older than her – out there alone without being trampled, drifted over by the snow, or just succumbing to the elements – none of us could ever know.

Sunday ended after we had temporarily fixed fences and made sure everything had settled down and was fed and watered. I’d never been so tired, cold, and hungry in my life, but I honestly didn’t care. The emotional exhaustion was almost more than any of us could stand. At the table that night, we barely ate, and an occasional tear would come to someone’s eye. It was a somber place.

Dusti Berry is an ag technology student at the Mitchell Technical Institute. She grew up on a ranch near Philip, S.D., and helped her family during the Atlas blizzard in October 2013.