by Sherry Bunting
HARRISONBURG, VA — When Jim Lam read the accounts after Storm Atlas hit South Dakota last October, he was moved in a way that was hard for him to explain. “It broke my heart to see this,” said the longtime cattleman and Rockingham County Feeder Cattle Association president.
The freak early autumn blizzard came without much warning. It started with rain, followed by four feet of snow Oct. 4-6 and resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of cattle. Not only was part of the calf crop lost just weeks before fall roundup and sale, affecting ranch income for the whole next year, the loss of more cows than calves will affect ranch income for the next two years. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time for a rancher to rebuild given the beef herd is the smallest in 60 years and western breeding stock is in short supply.
Lam and fellow Cattle Association members came together in mid-December to do a cattle drive for high quality bred heifers to send to young South Dakotan ranchers who lost 50 percent or more of their cowherds.
“What are they going to do? Around here, I can go out and get a job and still feed my family while I would rebuild. That’s not so easy out there without relocating,” said Forrest Miller, a cow/calf producer.
Miller is one of five members of the Rockingham association who got together last Friday morning at the Thomas House restaurant near Harrisonburg, VA to talk about the next load of ‘hope’ they are sending West.
“We could send a check, but we wanted to send what they need and that is cattle,” said cow/calf producer and association Vice President Lynn Koontz, whose Spring Valley Farms is the commingling site where cattle are acclimated before shipment.
The first load West from the Shenandoah Valley to the Black Hills region of South Dakota consisted of bred heifers due to calve in February and March. They boarded the truck at Rockingham County Livestock, Inc. at 6 a.m. Feb. 6, had a 24-hour layover in Greenville, IL, and were received by three young ranchers in South Dakota by Feb. 11. Some have already calved at their new homes.
On March 17, the Rockingham County Feeder Cattle Association began receiving donated cattle for a second load of heifers to be distributed by the Heifers for South Dakota project. This load will be 700 to 900 pound open heifers for delivery by the end of March for June breeding.
Halfway to their goal of 60 open heifers on this second cattle drive, the association is reaching out to fellow cattlemen throughout the Valley. Cash donations received in lieu of cattle are used to purchase additional heifers to complete the load and to defray costs of transportation.
“We chose to do cattle donations through Heifers for South Dakota because they target the young ranchers whose sole or primary income is ranching,” Lam said.
To date, the Montana-based Heifers for South Dakota has received almost 1,000 cattle for donation from around 70 ranches in more than a dozen states. They’ve also collected about $250,000 in cash contributions to purchase additional cattle for donation. They screen recipients of the donated cattle to target young and beginning ranchers, ranchers whose main income is ranching, and ranchers with the most severe losses from the storm. ‘Value of cattle delivered into the hands of those who are hurting is in excess of $1.25 million,’ reports the Heifers for South Dakota Facebook page.
While this is just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of cattle lost, the hope these donations bring has been overwhelming to recipients. For the Rockingham County cattlemen, it’s not the cattle losses they are focused on. It is the loss of young ranchers they are hoping to prevent.
“With Storm Atlas,” said Koontz, “the real loss is where there’s a young family that has put everything on the line to get started in ranching. If we lose those young ranchers out of production agriculture, that’s when we incur the big loss.”
“If something like this ever happened to me, I sure would hope someone would help,” Lam said. “They’re our neighbors too.”
Relatives, neighbors, call it what you will, the bottom line is cattlemen helping cattlemen, no matter where they call home. “It’s just the right thing to do,” said cow-calf producer Peter Hostetler, and “consistent with our Christian principles,” said backgrounder Leroy Rhodes.
“We should be doing these things to help each other, not relying on the government,” Lam added.
While the Farm Bill that was signed into law in January does include provisions for livestock disaster assistance, and cattlemen can carry some type of insurance on their animals, what has become apparent is that the freak nature of the early October blizzard defied the bounds of most insurance policies.
‘Hope with the hide on’ is the mantra of the Heifers for South Dakota project, and the cattlemen who participated in sending the first load of heifers say giving cattle is “like giving a piece of yourself”… a show of solidarity and an offering of hope that lives and breathes.
“One young couple said their cattle was their only income and at the end of the storm last October, they had but one calf left,” Lam noted, adding that he could understand just a fraction of that shock when last Sunday evening, the temperature at his farm in Virginia was 62 degrees and by Monday morning, it was -5 and snowing. “I lost just one or two calves last week, I can’t imagine the losses they dealt with out there and some of those losses won’t be fully counted until June or this fall.”
The decision to give was automatic once they put together the process to get it done. “I got to thinking how really blessed we’ve been the past two years here,” said Koontz. “We’ve had super crop years, marvelous corn and cattle prices. What better time for us to take advantage of good times to help ones who fell on hard times?”
He recalled how years ago, he and his dad had dry years, “and those boys out West would load hay on rail cars and ship it East,” said Koontz, wanting to return the favor.
Bred heifer donations are a substantial investment in the hard hit young ranchers of South Dakota. While they might bring $1,800 to $1,900 in Virginia, the value in the South Dakota is ranging $2,200 to $2,400.
Even if the livestock disaster assistance in the recently passed Farm Bill provides low interest loans to buy cattle to rebuild, the cost of rebuilding is staggering. “Even 600 to 700 pound open heifers are bringing $2 per pound here, and they’ll be even higher out there,” said Hostetler. By donating loads of cattle from the East, the cattlemen help everyone’s dollar go further in rebuilding out West.”
“I got a letter from one of the ranches,” said Lam. “They told me our donation helped them continue doing their dream of ranching.”
They were taken by surprise, added Koontz. “They considered it a blessing that cattlemen this far way first of all cared and secondly went to the effort and trouble to send them good cattle. Cash donations help us fill out the load and pay the cost to get the cattle out there, but cattle is what most of us have and want to give.”
“None of us can imagine what it’s like to wake up and find 60 percent of our herd gone, and not only that, but to look around our community and see that everywhere,” said Miller. “But we do understand what that kind of loss means to a family because we all have cattle.”
“If cattlemen everywhere each gave one, there’s no reason we can’t replace every animal that was lost,” challenged Hostetler.
To donate open heifers or monetary contributions, contact Matt Sponaugle at the Augusta County Extension Office 540-245-5750 or msponaugle@vtedu or call Lynn Koontz at 540-820-3940. To learn more about Heifers for South Dakota, visit their website at http://helpforsouthdakota.com and Heifers for South Dakota on Facebook to see how ranchers are helping across the country.