SHERIDAN — When winter storm Atlas came through Sheridan Oct. 4, it left a path of destruction that included thousands of damaged trees and power outages for hundreds of area residents.
However, as it moved east across Wyoming and into western South Dakota and Nebraska, the damage increased to include thousands of dead cattle spread across hundreds of miles and dozens of ranches. Some estimates put the number of dead cattle, sheep and horses at 30,000.
The scale of the disaster has inspired other ranchers to provide assistance, both monetary and through the donation of heifers to help repopulate herds.
Ty Linger, a cattle producer near Miles City, Mont., said his wife have family near Rapid City and from their reports, the Lingers’ knew that the power was out and there were big inconveniences to many people, but the true impacts of the storm weren’t seen for a few days.
“Monday, we started seeing that the storm might be a whole lot more than just power outages,” Linger said. “Tuesday we started seeing the pictures of what exactly had transpired in terms of livestock. There were just grotesque images, just heart wrenching. We felt compelled to do something to help in some way. We thought about it and prayed about it and it came to us that we would donate one of our bred heifers to help out.”
From that idea of a small donation has come Heifers for South Dakota, a large effort amongst ranchers in several states to donate one or more heifers, or to make monetary donations.
The Heifers for South Dakota Facebook page now has more than 9,000 followers and on Nov. 1, 23 donated heifers headed on trailers from Nebraska and southern South Dakota to Hermosa, S.D. for the first donation to a local ranch family.
“I thought if we could get a gooseneck load of heifers down there it would be a great thing,” said Linger. “Tomorrow will be four weeks since we got started and we have over 500 head donated and $40,000 in financial donations to pay for transport. It’s been just amazing. Folks generosity and willingness to help out in anyway they can is absolutely incredible.”
Linger said the group is focusing their efforts on helping young or beginning producers who may not have the equity to make it through the devastating losses.
He said a nominating committee has been formed with veterinarians, brand inspectors, farm and ranch store employees and other ranchers to identify which individuals and families are most in need and will benefit most from a donation.
Linger said 130 families are currently on the list and he hopes to provide assistance for each family to receive 20 heifers or enough money to purchase 20 heifers.
Some of the heifers that will be given to ranchers are coming from Sheridan resident Deanna Visborg. Visborg has been involved in the cattle business all her life, and her late husband Al, worked for the Kendrick Cattle Company as a cowboy for 40 years.
“I’m old and have been in cow business all my life,” she said. “I set in front of the television and cried when I saw all those cows. I didn’t know how to help.”
Visborg eventually heard about Linger’s heifer project and offered to donate five of her heifers.
“You know somebody else’s cattle can’t take the place of the cattle the people lose but it will help,” she said. “My late husband of 53 years … we gave more than 100 head of cattle to young people to get them started. I know he’d approve of this and would probably say let’s give them more.”
“The credit really goes to these young compassionate ranchers (Linger and his wife Rosalie) helping their South Dakota neighbors,” she continued. “It does my heart good to know there are young people to take over the industry. They are wonderful people and compassionate”
Other local entities are also contributing to the relief effort. First Interstate Bank branches in South Dakota and the First Interstate Bank Foundation have partnered to purchase replacement heifers for ranchers.
Rather than donating and transporting individual heifers, the group has purchased 35 heifers that are being sold at rollover auctions, meaning the calf can be sold over and over, raising money.
“We’ve purchased the calf outright,” explained FIB Foundation Executive Director Kelly Bruggeman. “Then they are being auctioned off and everyone is told this is for the benefit of the Ranch Relief Fund. These calves are re-auctioned several times. For example, the one in Billings that took place a few days ago, that one calf was re-auctioned and brought in $16,000 for the fund.”
“We could have easily just given $35,000 but this was a way to leverage the money,” continued Bruggeman about the advantage of purchasing calves for ‘rollover’ auctions. “And people want to be actively helping their neighbors and this provided a way for not only us and our employees to help but for other people around the region to help ranchers.”
She said that 26 auctions are scheduled in several states and the first nine have raised $145,000 for the fund. All the money raised from the auctions, as well as bank employee contributions, which are matched by the FIB Foundation, will be donated to the Rancher Relief Fund which is being managed and operated by the Black Hills Area Community Foundation. The local Padlock Ranch and Dan and Jeanne Scott Family Foundation have also donated to the relief fund.