PIERRE, S.D. (AP) -- A record-breaking storm that dumped 4 feet of snow in parts of western South Dakota last weekend left ranchers dealing with heavy losses, in some cases perhaps up to half their herds, as they assess how many of their cattle died during the unseasonably early blizzard.
Gary Cammack, who ranches on the prairie near Union Center about 40 miles northeast of the Black Hills, said he lost about 70 cows and some calves, about 15 percent of his herd. A calf would normally sell for $1,000, while a mature cow would bring $1,500 or more, he said.
"It's bad. It's really bad. I'm the eternal optimist and this is really bad," Cammack said. "The livestock loss is just catastrophic. ... It's pretty unbelievable."
Cammack said cattle were soaked by 12 hours of rain early in the storm, so many were unable to survive an additional 48 hours of snow and winds up to 60 mph.
"It's the worst early season snowstorm I've seen in my lifetime," said Cammack, 60.
Early estimates suggest western South Dakota lost at least 5 percent of its cattle, said Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association. Some individual ranchers reported losses of 20 percent to 50 percent of their livestock, Christen said. The storm killed calves that were due to be sold soon as well as cows that would produce next year's calves in an area where livestock production is a big part of the economy, she said.
"This is, from an economic standpoint, something we're going to feel for a couple of years," Christen said.
Some ranchers still aren't sure how many animals they lost, because they haven't been able to track down all of their cattle. Snowdrifts covered fences, allowing cattle to leave their pastures and drift for miles.
"Some cattle might be flat buried in a snow bank someplace," said Shane Kolb of Meadow, who lost only one cow.
State officials are tallying livestock losses, but the extent won't be known for several days until ranchers locate their cattle, Jamie Crew of the state Agriculture Department said.
Ranchers and officials said the losses were aggravated by the fact that a government disaster program to help ranchers recover from livestock losses has expired. Ranchers won't be able to get federal help until Congress passes a new farm bill, said Perry Plumart, a spokesman for Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D.