Hope emerges as ranchers embrace spring work

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Farm Forum

As West River pastures are greening up in South Dakota, hope is blooming in the livestock industry in the devastating wake of last October’s winter storm.

There in optimism in the air as ranchers embrace spring, with fences rebuilt and new cattle turned out to pasture, according to Silvia Christen of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.

“I think everyone in South Dakota appreciates this spring,” Christen said. “It’s been a long and hard winter. With the storm Atlas clobbering us in October, the winter has been tough on a lot of operations. There have been good reports on calving this spring, and there is reason to be hopeful again.”

With lush grass growing and good water supplies, Tif and Tyler Robertson of Hermosa are looking forward to a great year.

“We’re anticipating a really good year,” Robertson said. “We’re young and very optimistic. We’ll move forward, doing what we have to do. We lost cows, so we didn’t have as many animals to calve this spring. But calving went really well and every calf counts.”

Tif, 38, and Tyler, 36, ranch east of Hermosa. The couple have ranched all of their lives with animals affected by the winter storm in both Custer and Pennington counties.

“Tyler and I want to thank everyone for the help and support provided through the Rancher’s Relief effort,” Robertson said. “We were very blessed to get the help that we did from the Rancher’s Relief fund. Every dollar was helpful in purchasing some of the cake and feed for the cattle to get the animals through the winter plus purchasing needed vet supplies. It was humbling to accept the check as there was always someone who was in a worse situation,” Robertson said.

Fencing has been a constant activity since the snow melted. Miles of fences were destroyed during the storm and now need to be replaced. Branding needed to be completed. Animals will then be moved to pastures.

Robertson said that pretty much all of the cattle that died in Atlas are accounted for and buried. “I hope we’ve put all that to rest,” she said.

Time to close the fund

Seven months after winter storm Atlas devastated ranchers out west, the Ranchers Relief Fund will close on June 1. More than $5.2 million in donations were received with money distributed to nearly 600 producers impacted by the storm.

Livestock losses reported by fund applicants totaled 43,000 head. Of that total, 36,000 were cattle, 6,500 were sheep and 500 were horses.

The fund has served its purpose well in reducing the hopelessness, according to Christen. The final distribution will go out June 1, delivering the funds to the people where it was meant to go. Ranchers are putting that money to work as they rebuild.

The pace has slowed; ranch families are now feeling some sense of normalcy. While there will be scars, it’s back to the day-to-day projects. No one thought the livestock sector would ever find normal again, but with spring work and branding, it’s coming back.

Best year of rancher’s life

Marvin Jobgen of Scenic has been ranching since the 1970s. He weathered the 1980s with times of high interest plus other tough situations.

Before October, Jobgen said 2013 was shaping up to be the best year of his ranching career.

Then Atlas hit, crushing a lot of those dreams, but hope is on the horizon as the area has had really good moisture throughout the winter and spring.

“In our area, it looks as good as it ever has in my life,” he said. “Grass is in high demand, and it’s hard to find pasture to lease, as everyone is looking for some. We have some great forage this year. Stock dams are full of water.”

Jobgen expects a good year for 2014 as livestock markets are at an all-time high. He thinks that record prices will continue at least to the end of the year. The U.S. beef cow herd decreased by 11% from 2007 to 2014, dropping from 32.6 to 29.0 million head across the nation. Drought in other states has contributed to the decreased herds and higher prices.

“I have replaced some of the cows,” he said. “I bought older cows that were cheaper but not the same quantity as I’d had. We’ll build up the herd again.”

As one of the recipients of funds from Rancher’s Relief, Jobgen is very grateful for the check. “It didn’t replace the number of cattle we lost, but it came at a time when we were restructuring things financially. It was greatly appreciated.”

Jobgen praised the industry organizations, the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, the South Dakota Cattlemen and the South Dakota Sheep Growers Associations, who put a lot of time and energy into this program.

“It took a lot of work by key individuals to make that happen,” Jobgen said. “Those leaders stepped up and supported their industry. They did an outstanding job. They took the bull by the horns, ran with it and turned that into a great thing.”

Goal was $1 million

“When the fund very first started, it was another thing we did that day,” Christen said. “We didn’t have time to give it much thought. We needed some place to park the money that started coming in. We thought we set a really big goal of raising $1 million. We never, ever imagined the fund would reach $5.4 million. And the money was largely unsolicited. People held fundraisers, sent checks and the money showed up. That was what was most impressive.”

Christen said almost half of the money came from within South Dakota, but the donations came from all over, including a couple of foreign countries. Christen said. “The next 20 percent came from states that touched South Dakota. There was an incredible response from people.”

She said that the largest gift was $100,000 and the smallest was $1. The average gift was well over $100. People gave what they could to support the ranchers, and they are so thankful for the efforts, Christen said.

“We had a committee look at the details of the operations and went through an application and nomination process,” Christen said. “We detailed how many head of animals were lost, what percentage that would be of their herd, how long the producers have been in the industry and if there is off farm income.”

“Our goal was to help those who were hurt the worst,” Christen said. “We came up with a formula that prorated the funds to those in need. Depending on what the situation was, some received more than others, but I think it was a fair process. We did our best to get help out to the families.”

Continued support

Any additional funds will be directed to Catholic Social Services. Christen said the group helped with the initial processing of applications and have provided mental health counseling for those affected. They will continue to provide support to those who have been affected and support worthy causes within the community.

When the checks were distributed, there were hugs and tears, but the biggest thing was the moral support. As the ranchers took the checks to the bank, they were able to plan purchases of new cattle and order supplies to get fences repaired. It’s a great feeling to know they had funds to get things moving again, Christen said. There are a few producers who have gotten out of the cattle business because of their age or the good prices they could get for their cattle. But Christen said she hasn’t really heard of anyone who was forced out because of the damage from the storm.

As cattle numbers drop in other states because of drought conditions, South Dakota is benefiting. Cattle prices are high, and some animals have been brought to South Dakota to graze this summer. That can benefit the producers in this state.

“Ranchers have the ability to recover while those in drought areas aren’t sure when the weather will change,” Christen said. “We’ve had good moisture this spring and so are poised for a pretty strong recovery in South Dakota.”

“We never imagined that we’d come out of last winter OK,” Christen said. “It’s pretty thrilling to know how far we’ve come in the last seven months. We’re certainly grateful to all those who have provided support.”