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Freak Winter Storm Kills Tens of Thousands of Cows in South Dakota [VIDEO]

Oct 18, 2013 03:19 PM EDT

Tens of thousands of dead cattle have emerged in the aftermath of a freak winter storm that spawned tornadoes and record snowfall in South Dakota and elsewhere in the Great Plains.

As many as 30,000 head of cattle were killed in South Dakota, according to State Veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven, who spoke with the Associated Press.

Up to 4 feet of snow blanketed parts of the Great Plains during the fierce winter storm that roared through the nation's midsection Oct. 3-5.

The storm came early -- with full force -- before the cows where able to grow the "winter coats" of fur that typically allow them to endure the blistering winds and cold temperatures brought by winter weather.

Freezing rain, winds up to 70 mph and significant snowfall played to the cows' demise. Some were killed by hypothermia and some suffocated as snow accumulated in their lungs, while still others plummeted off ledges as they tried to move to safety in the blinding snow.

"I've been in this business 50 years and I've never seen anything like this," Kathy Jobgen, a rancher, told Reuters. "The vision of seeing all these cattle dead is something you can't wipe out of our eyes."

Jobgen estimated she lost about half of her herd of 350 to the storm. Other ranchers lost their entire herds. Financial losses directly related to cattle may be as high as $1.25 million, CBS News reported, while damage from the storm across the region is expected to be in the millions.

Flooded and muddy pastures have made it difficult for the ranchers to remove the carcasses or care for the cattle that survived the storm. Around the Black Hills, giant burial pits have been dug for the cattle, according to CBS.

South Dakota Rep. Gary Cammack, who lost 20 percent of his own cattle herd in the storm, told The Associated Press that it's possible that as many as 30 percent of the 1 million cattle in western South Dakota have perished.

"It just seems like the sad stories and disasters never end," he said.

Overall, South Dakota has the sixth-largest cattle herd in the US, with about 3.85 million head as of January 2013.

The storm hit during the heart of the congressional impasse, which gridlocked the federal government and disabled the ranchers from collecting any government assistance, or even reporting their losses to a federal agency.

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