Optimism replaced heartbreak each time an expectant cow or heifer stepped into a stock trailer for the ride to a new home as Heifers for South Dakota now distributing more than 400 cattle to ranchers who lost livestock in the October blizzard.
Cattle started rolling in last week from at least 10 states and 300 donors. An earlier shipment of 23 heifers to a Hermosa couple started the giveaway inspired by Miles City, Mont., rancher Ty Linger.
To date, ranchers have donated more than 450 bred cattle and 150 heifer calves to help ranchers replace their dead cattle.
As of Monday afternoon, the South Dakota Livestock Industry Board had reported losses of 20,418 cows and calves, 299 horses, 1,382 sheep, 40 bison and one goat.
The gift of even one pregnant heifer, a first-time mother-to-be, was enough to bring a smile to a young rancher's face. Loading a trailer with five to 20 cows carrying next season's calves represents a promise for the future, according to Shane Labrier of Spearfish. Labrier, who grew up in the Union Center area, has served as Linger's South Dakota contact since shortly after hearing about the project.
"There's nothing that impacts people more than live cattle. It's unbelievable what the live cattle do," Labrier said while sorting cattle last Thursday at Tom Brunner's feed yards near Nisland. Brunner donated the use of his yards as a drop off and delivery point for the cattle.
Justin and Megan Long of Red Owl were among the first to take home a group of donated heifers last Thursday. The storm killed half of the herd they had spent seven years building.
"It was like hanging from a cliff without a foothold," Megan Long, 28, told Heifers for South Dakota organizers last Thursday. "Heifers for South Dakota came along and you gave us a foothold now."
It took the Longs seven years to grow their herd of 65 cows to the 200 head they had when the storm struck on Oct. 4. The weekend storm slashed their herd in half. Their cattle walked for miles before stumbling into a dam to die.
"When the storm hit, they didn't have a chance," Long recalled.
When Brian Flatmoe first ventured out after the storm, the 50-year-old Meadow rancher had no idea of the storm's consequences. He received 20 bred cows on Monday.
"I didn't think it was that bad," Flatmoe said Monday.
Almost two months after the storm, it was still difficult for the soft-spoken rancher to talk about his losses. The storm killed 27 percent of his cattle. Had it come two weeks later, his calves would have been sold and the check would have been in the bank.
"There are people who had it much worse," Flatmoe said with a shrug.
For everyone who lost stock, the storm exacted a heavy financial and emotional loss, he said. "You work your whole life and it's gone..."
The Heifers for South Dakota committee selected the Flatmoe's since the storm was the family's second tragedy. In 2012, their 17-year-old daughter in a car crash, Amanda Labrier explained.
"This is a very humbling gift. It's a blessing," Flatmoe said, fighting back tears. "People have been so generous, it's mind boggling."
Matt Wiesinger of Shadhill ranches with his parents. He started building his herd when he graduated from high school in 2003. He was thinking about marriage and a family when the storm wiped out 20 percent of his and his parents' cattle.
The six Montana heifers he took home Monday made the world "a lot brighter," he said. "It's a relief."
People are "amazing," Weisinger's mother, Diane, said. "It's neat that people care."
Last Friday, Renetta Phillipi drove 90 miles from Hammond, Mont., to deliver a bred-heifer to Brunners. Phillipi and her husband, Lester, lost 130 calves and 34 cows in a 2009 blizzard. Donating a heifer to a South Dakota rancher was a way to "pay it forward," Phillipi said.
"We know what it's like. We don't want anyone to quit because of this," she said.
The storm was "a bad deal" Larry Licking said when he dropped off a fancy black heifer he and his wife, Deb Brown, donated Friday. "We feel like we should be able to help a little. I've seen a lot of storms, but this was the biggest killer storm of my lifetime."
More than 40 families received cattle over the weekend, thanks to the generosity of livestock producers from least six states, Linger said. Volunteers in other states have assisted in coordinating the delivery of cattle from as far away as Arkansas and Idaho.
On Tuesday, the South Dakota Brand Board joined the Montana Department of Livestock and the Wyoming Brand Board in waiving brand inspection fees. Most of the donated cattle were gathered in Montana before being shipped to South Dakota.
The South Dakota Brand Board wants to make sure everything is done by the book, said Nathan Sanderson, Gov. Dennis Daugaard's policy adviser on agriculture. Daugaard's office is collaborating with the board, the state Department of Agriculture and the Livestock Industry Board to cover the costs.
At least four pieces of paper accompanied each animal. The cattle were brand and health inspected before leaving and after arriving in South Dakota on Thursday and Friday. A final inspection was made before the cattle left Nisland.
Brand inspectors and veterinarians donated their time, according to Linger. Several cattle recipients took cattle home, only to return the next day to help sort and load cattle going to others.
The North Central Resource, Conservation and Development District in Pierre is donating its 501c3 status and staff time to handle the paper trail accompanying each cow, according to Program Assistant Sherri Cass.
Cass is also collecting cash donations that will help cover any shipping costs associated with the program. So far, she hasn't received a bill from anyone.
The nation's response to Heifers for South Dakota is overwhelming, Cass told the Journal Tuesday.
"It's a wonderful, wonderful thing that is happening," Cass said. "There are some awesome people out there."
Cash donations have ranged from $5 to $5,000. Any money not used to transfer cattle to new owners will be used to buy more cattle, she said.
One South Dakota family lost 150 head in the blizzard only to turn around and donated five heifers to someone else, Linger said.
The response has been "absolutely incredible," according to the young Montana rancher who originally committed to giving one bred heifer and then challenged the nation to join him.
"It's just been so incredible the volume of people who have volunteered to help and no one is asking for a single penny," Linger said.