Highway 2/71 north of Crawford, in the Nebraska Panhandle, is a ribbon of pavement in a vast rolling grassland broken by the occasional tree covered butte. It runs through an area rancher Dave Moody calls the “gumbo,” thanks to the thick mud that develops after a long rain.
In recent years, the gumbo has seen a string of disasters. Drought dried up the pastures. Wildfires seared the pine forests. Then, in October, an early blizzard piled on.
The disasters walloped the ranchers that graze their herds on the sprawling grassland. Normally, farmers and ranchers hit hard by natural disasters can expect help from the federal government. But the funds set aside for disaster assistance for livestock producers is part of the farm bill. Since the farm bill expired at the end of September, ranchers have nowhere to turn.
House and Senate negotiators are drawing up a new farm bill, but it may be months off. In the meantime, Crawford and other areas hit hard by herd-destroying weather illustrate how important policy in Washington can be to farm country.
Dave Moody lost more than more than 120 cows and calves, about 10 percent of his herd, in the October blizzard.
“We were supposed to sell that Friday and take the calves off the cows and take them in to Crawford Livestock,” Moody said, standing on the road where he had piled the cattle carcasses.
But the night before, 2 inches of rain turned the gumbo into sticky, clay muck. Rancher J.R. Wasserburger said by the morning the rain had turned to snow.
“By noon, you couldn’t see anywhere,” said Wasserburger, who lost 50 cattle in the storm. “Forty-mile-per-hour winds and then the power went out.”
Up to 2 feet fell in Nebraska, 4 feet in parts of South Dakota. The blast of winter was a shock to the cattle, which hadn’t yet developed the thick winter coat that would normally help protect them. Rancher Joe Falkenberg said many of those that died drifted with the wind until they were trapped in fence lines and ditches.
“The veterinarians who autopsied those said they drowned or in some cases were just smothered from one piled on top of the other,” Falkenberg said. “The rain came on Thursday and it was over Saturday, but it was sure a cow killer.”
In Nebraska, more than 2,400 cattle died and more are still missing. The damage was even worse in South Dakota where state officials estimate 15,000-30,000 cattle were lost. With each cow worth as much as $2,000, the losses add up.
The timing of the storm could hardly be worse – many ranchers were about sell their calves and see a return from the investments they had been raising since the spring. Plus, the disaster relief programs that were meant to help were sidelined when the farm bill ran out, just days before the blizzard hit.
“We’re kind of treading water until we see if a policy actually is approved by Congress that might help these producers,” said Scott Cotton, an extension livestock specialist in Chadron, Neb.
The government treats livestock differently than crops. While corn and soybean farmers are protected by crop insurance paid for in part by the government, there’s no equivalent livestock insurance program. Instead, University of Nebraska Lincoln ag economist Brad Lubben says Congress added a livestock indemnity program to the farm bill in 2008 to help when disaster strikes.
“The livestock indemnity program pays a percentage of the market value of the animals lost due to the disaster event,” Lubben said.
For each animal lost in the blizzard, ranchers could recover 65 percent of its market value in the version of the farm bill passed by the Senate, 75 percent in the House version.
Relief from the indemnity program will not be available until Congress passes a new farm bill and the conference committee is just beginning its work.
“That might be so far down the road that these guys will be buried by that time,” said Rob Reid, a veterinarian Crawford who has been helping ranchers document their losses so they can apply for relief.
“I know one producer who lost 360 head out of 400,” Reid said. “You can’t recover from that. If he doesn’t get assistance he’s done.”
To help ranchers buy time, the government is offering emergency loans and can help with the cost of burying dead cattle. A few non-profits are raising money for financial aid and to replace lost animals.
While the House and Senate finalize the Farm Bill, ranchers like Joe Falkenberg are moving forward as best they can.
On a sprawling ranch north of Harrison, Neb., Falkenberg said he plans to rebuild the herd, but expects to find a shortage of replacement cattle.
“The problem is going to be they’re going to be very expensive to buy back this fall,” Falkenberg said. “Terrible expensive.”
Falkenberg said ranchers are inclined to try get by on their own, but said they need all the help they can get after the combination of drought, fire, and now a blizzard.
“I know we can’t depend on the government to take care of us for everything we do, but this was a devastating, unexpected storm,” Falkenberg said. “And it was very hard on people in every way.”
Relief may eventually come in a new farm bill. Ranchers just hope it comes soon enough to help their businesses survive the storm.