Dr. Val FarmerDr.Val
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

A Winter To Remember

February 3, 1997

"Look kids. See the snow cover the tops of our trees. You'll never see that again." At least our farmers and ranchers in the Northern Plains hope not. There has never been a winter quite like this one. There have been winters of deep snow. Winters with two or three paralyzing blizzards - the kind where you couldn't move for several days.

Some talk about the winter of '49 when the snow was as deep as you'll ever want to see it. The winter of '66 had its deep snows and rough blizzards, `68 - `69 had huge snowfalls and '77 had tough snow and 60 continuous days of below freezing weather with devastating wind chills. This winter has all of the above. Most people can=t remember a tougher winter than this one.

What is different? A succession of storms began in early November - one blizzard following on the heels of another. By mid-January, we've had nine and we're still at midwinter. Rural people dig out from one blizzard and the next one comes in. The sequence has been "horrific."

First came a heavy snow over unfrozen ground. The wet fall and early snows left crops unharvested in the fields. The haymovers couldn't get in to move the hay to where it needed to be. This left crops in the field and hay bales in the field.

Then another driving, freezing blizzard came to cover the first snow fall. A rain and ice storm covered those snows with a thick layer of ice. It was like concrete, a surface you practically needed an ice pick to chop open. Then repeated snows, ice storms, blizzards and deadly wind chills caused major drifts that blocked roads and access to feed, towns and services.

Underneath this mountain of snow is soft muddy ground that prevents equipment from moving. Finding traction is difficult. Ranchers and farmers uncovered some ground with the hope of getting it to freeze over. With the pattern of weekly blizzards, the snow came and blew it over again. The process starts all over. Open roads are sheets of ice.

Snow-covered haystacks have a layer of ice welding them together. Drifts keep ranchers from getting to the feed anyway. Ranchers have a cruel situation - starving cattle that need extra feed to deal with the incessant cold, feed on hand and no way to feed their cattle. Ranchers are running out of accessible feed. This is as painful as it gets.

Death losses are high as the animals are stressed, exhausted and give up. They are blinded and suffocate with ice on their faces. Windbreaks cause major drifting. Cattle can=t be moved to safe locations.

The snow in other winters was workable. Ranchers could always find a way to feed their cattle after a blizzard. This winter they can't. This winter they can't even get to some of their cattle. Emotionally it rips them apart. One town resident worried, "How do the cattle keep their sanity in this kind of weather?@ A rancher piped up, "How about the guys who take care of the cattle? What about their sanity?"

Pole barns and shop roofs collapse. Metal on metal is brittle and breaks. Diesel jells up. Nothing starts.

Hydraulics won't work. Stress is put on equipment that normally sits idle in the winter. The snow is so tough that major equipment breaks. "Everything wants to give up."

Under blizzard conditions people can't get to town to get needed parts. People choose their trips carefully so as not to get stranded in away from their place during the next blizzard. Farmers can't haul their wheat to sell it.

In Hand County, South Dakota,as of mid-January there had been four days of school in the past six weeks that included Christmas vacation. Ranchers feed during the day and clear out snow at night. Power outages are common. Water supplies for the animals are threatened by water pumps breaking down or by electrical outages. Dairymen have to dump milk because they can't move it.

Meanwhile, farmers and ranchers watch wildlife come in to eat feed supplies. The death loss among wildlife itself is discouraging.

This qualifies as a disaster as surely as a major flood or drought. Extra feed will be made available. The National Guard is helping to clear roads. Normal snowplows don't touch this stuff. Dozers and rotary plows are required. The ranchers away from main roads have to wait and wait for their township roads to be cleared out. There isn't enough manpower or equipment on hand to deal with the number of roads and fields plugged up.

There are plenty of worries about the coming spring - wet fields, a rushed planting season, finding out about the death loss, cash flow problems, nutritionally deficient and weak calves, more death loss, fertility problems, low cattle prices, etc. Expensive bulls with frozen testicles are like a death loss. But, it's not the long term producers think about, at least right now. It is how to get through the day and to do what needs to be done.

The upside is they will have wonderful pastures, good subsoil moisture, dams full of water, a great first cutting of a hay crop and a cattle market on it 's way up from rock bottom. Neighbors help neighbors. Families pull together. People get together to socialize, laugh and tell stories about what they are going through.

Winter is testing people=s grit. Most will emerge stronger with vivid memories that they made it through the worst winter they hope ever to see.