By Michael Hirtzer
(Reuters) - Disaster aid will be slow to come for South Dakota ranchers who lost as many as 60,000 head of cattle during an historic blizzard over the weekend, industry officials said on Tuesday.
Cattle died of hypothermia or suffocated under snowdrifts after a "perfect storm" brought rain, then record snowfall and strong winds to the portion of the state west of the Missouri River, said Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.
"It's anyone's guess how drastic this loss will be. The cattle were soaked to the bone. Then the wind and really heavy snow started - it just clung to them and weighed them down," Christen said.
"Many of them just dropped where they were walking," she said, adding that at least 5 percent of the roughly 1.2 million cattle in the western third of South Dakota likely perished.
South Dakota is the sixth largest U.S. cattle producer with about 3.8 million head. The United States has about 89 million head of cattle - its smallest herd in 61 years.
The state's ranchers could apply for disaster relief under the Livestock Indemnity Program that would pay them a portion of the animal's market value. But the program is part of the 2008 farm bill extension that expired Oct 1 - the first day of the U.S. government shutdown over a budget impasse.
And with the U.S. Agriculture Department shuttered, livestock producers also are unable to file paperwork detailing their losses with USDA's Farm Service Agency.
"Those (FSA) offices are furloughed and there are no employees there. They are unable to help us even though they desperately want to," Christen said.
Snow was melting, exposing herds of dead cattle that had sought shelter in creek bottoms and valleys or along fence lines. The carcasses will eventually be hauled away to rendering facilities, often at the farmer's expense.
In Rapid City, in the west-central part of the state, 19 inches of snow fell smashing a nearly 100-year old record for accumulation in October, according to the National Weather Service.
Parts of Colorado and Wyoming also saw heavy snowfall during the storms that also brought more than a dozen of tornadoes to Iowa and Nebraska, injuring at least 15 people, damaging homes, closing schools and knocking down power lines.
For the cattle, the storms came too early in the season for the animals to grow their heavier winter coats. Many of the dead included young calves ready to be marketed as well as cows pregnant with calves that would have been born in the spring.
"A lot of folks are still trying to assess the damage and losses and regroup after the storm," said Jodie Anderson, executive director of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association.
Anderson said livestock farmers should document their losses with pictures and identification tags in the event the government reopens and a farm bill is passed.
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)