Parsons, Kansas —
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — The state's congressional delegation pledged last week to push for quick passage of the stalled farm bill because it's the best bet for providing financial help to western South Dakota ranchers who lost huge portions of their cattle herds during last weekend's early fall blizzard.
Officials have not yet come up with a tally of total livestock losses, but some ranchers have reported as much as 50 percent or more of their cattle died after rain was followed by heavy snow and winds up to 60 mph. Some sheep and horses also were lost in the storm.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said a previous federal livestock disaster program expired at the end of 2011. The House and Senate versions of the new farm bill include programs to help cover livestock losses, but the two chambers have been unable to agree on a farm bill after passing different versions several months ago.
Until a new farm bill is passed, with a retroactive livestock disaster program, little assistance is available to ranchers, Thune said. The House version of the farm bill would cover 75 percent of fair market value of lost livestock, while the Senate version would cover 65 percent.
``Hopefully, this will be the impetus to get the farm bill passed, to get people to the table,'' Thune said.
Alan Rislov, 35, who ranches near Philip, said a disaster program would be welcome. He estimates he lost 30 percent of his cattle, but won't know until he finds all of them.
``We don't know for sure how many we lost, but in the hundreds,'' Rislov said.
``It's a tough deal,'' Rislov said. ``We're hoping there's going to be a disaster program. We'll just have to see what happens, I guess.''
Thune said he hoped to speak later with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to urge that the House appoint members to a conference committee that could reach agreement on a farm bill.
South Dakota's lone member of the U.S. House, Republican Kristi Noem, said she believes Boehner will appoint members to the negotiating committee soon.
Noem, who led a push to get the livestock disaster program included in the House's farm bill, said passage of the measure is crucial because it could also help ranchers recoup losses suffered during last year's drought.
``It makes it all the more important we get it done before we start losing family ranchers,'' Noem said.
Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said Congress must end the government shutdown so U.S. Agriculture Department employees can be recalled from furloughs to help ranchers document their losses. ``Then we need to pass the farm bill to provide the much needed livestock disaster assistance to ranchers.''
Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association, said a livestock disaster program is needed quickly.
``The situation right now in western South Dakota is dire,'' Christen said. ``We have ranchers who have nothing left, literally nothing left.''
Many ranchers had not yet sold their calves, their main income for the year, and those calves are now dead, Christen said.
``We're standing to lose a substantial number of the ranchers that make the economy work out here in South Dakota. Anything that can be done to help them is going to be appreciated,'' Christen said.
Meanwhile, the Stockgrowers Association, the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association and the South Dakota Sheep Growers Association are seeking donations to a relief fund that has been set up to help ranchers who lost livestock.
``There are so many people from across the country who have offered to help and want to know what they can do,'' Christen said. £