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Kristina Barker, Associated Press
In this Oct. 1, 2014 photo, livestock can be seen through the cracked windshield of Alan Rislov's truck as the rancher drives to a pasture outside Philip, S.D. Like many ranchers in western South Dakota, Rislov and his herd here in Philip took a drubbing last year when a freak autumn blizzard struck in early October, killing at least 43,000 cattle across the state.
The Good Lord could break us all in one night — and he just about did it. But you just gotta close your eyes, make the best of a bad situation and go. —Mark Buchholz

PHILIP, S.D. — Mark Buchholz is a man of faith. You have to be, in his line of work.

Like other western South Dakota ranchers, he took a drubbing one year ago when a freak early autumn blizzard killed at least 43,000 cattle.

But despite heavy financial losses, people in the industry said most ranchers are still in business and doing better than expected, largely thanks to millions of dollars in disaster relief combined with high cattle prices and a showering of support from generous people.

Still, it'll be years before everyone's square. Buchholz said the aid helped but didn't come close to recouping over half a million dollars he lost when more than 300 of his animals died.

"I know these guys are very resilient and they're going to work through it and come back on the other side," Buchholz said. "But it's not a one-year deal. It's a five- to 10-year deal."

The storm dumped more than 4 feet of snow in two days in western South Dakota and parts of North Dakota and Wyoming. Preceded by cold, heavy rains, it killed off and dispersed thousands of cattle without their winter coats fully grown. That robbed ranchers of their annual paycheck, as most were within weeks of selling their calves.

"At the time, it was very devastating, it looked pretty bleak," said Dave Schriever, vice president of lending at First National Bank in Philip. "Through the help of neighbors, the Rancher's Relief Fund ... and a lot of resilience from our producers, one year later there's been setbacks, but most of (our customers) are doing pretty well."

Nobody got out of the business, he said.

In all, the Rancher Relief Fund gave about $5.5 million to 600 families, said Jodie Anderson, director of the South Dakota Cattlemen's Association. The federal Livestock Indemnity Program dispersed about $33 million to around 1,500 ranchers, said Lynn Stoltenburg, a program manager with the Farm Services Agency in Huron.

Buchholz, who also owns an implement dealership in Philip, said most ranchers had to take on more debt.

"If you owed a hundred thousand dollars on those cows (that died) and you gotta spend $200,000 to buy them back, you'd have to have $300,000 worth of debt," Buccholz said. "So, financially, it's an uphill battle."

Buchholz and Shriever said the storm made people to spend less over the past year on new equipment and groceries, but local economies have bounced back, for the most part.

Alan Rislov, who ranches his own cattle and manages Buchholz's herd near Philip, said he lost about a third of his herd but received donations from around the country, including from churches in Texas and Oklahoma that sent checks and Christmas presents. The storm was terrible, but the reaction from people made the recovery much easier, he said.

"Until something like this happens, you're kind of in your own little world out here," Rislov said, standing outside his house miles into the countryside. "This kind of helps connect you with the rest of the world."

Despite what many ranchers said was the worst natural disaster of their lifetimes, most will be all right, in time, Buchholz said, speaking with a mix with of eternal optimism and reality.

"The Good Lord could break us all in one night — and he just about did it," he said. "But you just gotta close your eyes, make the best of a bad situation and go."