The Naval Postgraduate School & The U.S. Department of Homeland Security

Catastrophic South Dakota Snow Storm Leaves Thousands of Cattle Dead

Disposal of cattle may require burial or composting.Over the weekend of October 6, South Dakota experienced a record-breaking snow storm that dumped over four feet of snow on the state in three days. The storm, which was preceded by freezing rain and sleet, killed over 70,000 cattle.

According to the Weather Channel, stuck vehicles, downed trees, and high wind gusts lead to a large-scale shutdown of Rapid City and surrounding areas. The total snowfall in Rapid City makes this storm the second heaviest on record; their third heaviest snowstorm was a mere six months ago at 22.4 inches. See NOAA's comprehensive snowfall map for October 3 - 5, 2013.

Ranchers of South Dakota, with typical snowfalls in October rarely this extreme, were caught unprepared, and the cold rain followed by rigorous snowfall lead to the deaths of thousands of cows. The South Dakota Stock Growers Association estimates that as many as 20% of the state's entire cattle stock has been lost to the blizzard. This amounts to a huge number of animal carcasses that will require a statewide disposal system.

Animal carcasses are hotbeds for disease, and there are several methods of disposal that South Dakota ranchers will need to consider. Composting and burial are often viable options, but come with the risk of contaminating ground or surface water depending on location. Incineration, bio-digestion, and chemical digestion are sometimes desirable methods of disposal, but can come with a steep price tag. Each state and municipality has separate rules regarding the disposal of animal carcasses.

The Texas AgriLife Extension website discusses in detail preparing for disasters, including those related to mass animal deaths. The Homeland Security Digital Library has a large collection of documents related to animal carcass disposal, including technical documentation and examples from previous mass die-off events.