The early winter storm started on Thursday, October 3, with winds gusting to 50 miles per hour and snow fall that would total, by the time the weather broke on Sunday, more than four feet in places. For ranchers in South Dakota, the unexpected storm was devastating, with some losing from 20 to 50 percent of their herds.
When Ty Linger of Miles City heard the news, his first thought was what he could do to help. He and his wife, Rosalie, were raising cattle on a ranch near Miles City, and they thought they could spare a heifer or two from their herd. Then Rosalie mentioned it on Facebook, and like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill, the idea grew and grew.
Through their Facebook page, Heifers for South Dakota, they started to spread the word, wondering if anyone else might be interested in donating a heifer or two. They started taking a few pledges, and then the whole thing took off, first spreading throughout Montana.
Then sympathetic ranchers in Nebraska, Iowa, Montana, Utah, North and South Dakota starting looking at their herds and thinking maybe they could spare a heifer or two themselves. It spread some more, and ranchers from Arkansas and Oklahoma checked in. Eventually, around 300 donors would contribute more than 600 cows.
And not just any cows. Linger noted that ranchers were “giving right off their top of the herd.” One Powder River county rancher brought in some folks who judged livestock at local fairs and had them pick out his two best animals to donate.
A 4-H’er in Wyoming overheard a conversation about donating and volunteered her project animal. She was told that if she did that, her heifer project would be incomplete. Her response? A rancher in South Dakota needed her heifer more than the local program did. Her heifer will be donated, and she will receive an incomplete.
Then there was the matter of getting several hundred head from where they were being donated to where they needed to be. Truckers started volunteering their time and their trucks to haul the animals. Tracy and Mike Hauk of Miles City just got back from taking four truckloads of about 200 cattle to South Dakota.
“To say the least, it was pretty emotional,” Tracy said of seeing the recipients pick up the cattle.
She had special thanks for local veterinarian Cal Davison, who inspected and cleared 180 head to go from Montana to South Dakota.
Not everyone has a heifer to donate. Some folks wanted to give cold, hard cash. So Linger made arrangements with North Central Resource Conservation and Development. North Central RC&D was an official 501(c)3 non-profit. They agreed to be the central clearinghouse for donations and waived their usual administrative fee.
North Central weren’t the only folks who waived fees. The Montana Department of Livestock Brand Inspectors contacted Heifers for South Dakota and waived all their fees, as did other state inspectors and veterinarians. When one state was unable to get permission from their attorney general to waive fees, an individual covered the fees himself.
Fundraisers were held. The “Tips to Ship” chili feed fundraiser, held at the Bison Bar in Miles City, raised an astonishing $19,020 in one night. Other donations, from small to large, came in from all over the country. One donation came from an elderly veteran who could no longer speak but was still able to convey his desire to donate.
Now to figure who would get the heifers. A committee was put together in South Dakota to help select the ranch families who would receive donations. They were to be younger producers, who might not have the resources to recover from a major loss, and who were determined to keep ranching.
There have been a few bumps. One family who was in one of the worst hit areas was contacted. His family operation aligned with the kind of folks who were to receive donated animals. He said, “No, we’ll pull through. But we do have four bred heifers that we would like to donate to your program.”
Megan and Justin Long of Newell, S. D., are among the beneficiaries of the program. A young couple with four children, they started out with 65 head a few years ago, and their goal was to raise their herd to 200. This year they achieved that, with 207 head. As Megan said, “Just one weekend took that away from us.” They lost 102 animals.
“It was like hanging from a cliff without a foothold,” Megan said.
But The donations have provided a foothold for her family and “gave us the courage to keep going.”
Based on the quality of the animals donated and the current cattle prices, Linger estimates that between $1,250,000 and $1,500,000 worth of animals were donated, and around $500,000 in cash and services was collected. There are plans for further shipments in the second week of January and donations are still being accepted, of animals as well as cash and services.
While the storm was a terrible blow, Linger says working on the Heifers for South Dakota project has been “an amazing gift.”