Cattle plunge through ice, die in mass drowning

Farm Forum

In a pasture alongside the White Clay Reservoir that straddles the Nebraska-South Dakota border, Mike Carlow fed 207 beef cattle on Jan. 6, and his brother, Pat, fed them on Jan. 7.

Jan. 8 was the next time the two saw the cattle, and the sight was ghastly: dozens of dark, motionless lumps in the winter-white setting of that reservoir.

The carcasses of at least 49 of the cattle were stuck barely above the water level.

After counting the survivors, Mike Carlow estimated 100 of the brothers’ cattle had drowned, many of them still under the ice-water mixture.

“I’ve been ranching over 40 years,” he said, “and I don’t ever remember cattle walking out on ice or falling through.”

Bob Fortune, president of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said the large number of deaths resulting from breaking through ice and drowning is extremely rare.

“I’ve heard of it happening one or two times in my lifetime,” Fortune, a rancher for about 50 years, said. Occasionally, he added, “one or two or three” will drown that way.

The brothers, members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and collaborate on the ranching, but each owns his own herd. Of the 207 in that ill-fated group, 107 belonged to Mike Carlow.

He estimated the loss at about $300,000, which is the amount he paid for 117 2-year-old bred heifers, many of whom were among the drowned. He said he has no insurance.

“Hopefully,” Carlow said, “the Lord will take care of us, and other ranchers will feel our pain, and something good (will) come from this tragic loss.”

He said the area of the reservoir where the cattle died had been iced over for some time. The cattle drank water from the spillway of the White Clay Dam, which is at the north end of the reservoir. Often, the body of water is referred to as the White Clay Dam.

Carlow’s theory is that “one hell of a windstorm” Wednesday night pushed the cattle to seek shelter behind a tree line near the water. When some of them ventured out onto the ice, their weight broke through.

On Jan. 8, when Pat Carlow went out to feed the cattle, he couldn’t find them. When a lengthy search turned up the sad truth, he called his brother, a contractor working on a project at the Prairie Wind Casino.

In the first phone call, Mike Carlow said, his brother wasn’t sure how many cattle had died. By the second call, however, the news was much more grim: It appeared at least 30 were dead.

Then the count reached 49, with no doubt many more still below the surface.

The immediate plan is to round up the surviving cattle and take them to safety on a ranch lot. “We’ll feed them there,” Mike Carlow said.

After that, “I don’t know what the hell is going to happen,” he said. His ranching business, Carlow said, “was starting to really pay off.

“Hopefully, we can stay in business.”