It's estimated that at least 100,000 cattle perished in the blizzards and floods that ravaged North Dakota in the past two weeks, leaving ranchers and their bankers wondering how to weather the losses.
"You talk to ranchers, and every day as the snow melts they're finding more dead cows," said Ron Palczewski, vice president of Dakota Western Bank, Bowman, N.D.
"The blizzard hit right in the middle of calving season," Mr. Palczewski noted. "A lot of baby cows and newborns died.
While the state appraises the damage left by rising rivers and blinding snowstorms, bankers are being called upon to help ranchers salvage the remains of their businesses.
North Dakota's banking commissioner is telling his examiners to give banks more leeway in working out loan problems.
Mr. Palczewski said he's working with ranchers on assessing the damage they sustained and seeing what assistance is offered by the federal Farm Service Agency.
He hasn't determined what his customers' losses will mean for Dakota Western, a $49 million-asset bank that has 50% of its loans in cattle.
The cattle industry, with some 1.9 million head before the latest disaster, is second only to wheat as an agricultural money-maker in the state.
But state officials said that in addition to the dead cattle found already-an estimated 100,000 of them-more will be found once ice-covered rivers and creeks thaw.
Many cattle drowned when they wandered away from their fields to escape the storm.
West River State Bank, Hettinger, has $12 million of agricultural loans, and about 60% of them are in the cattle industry, said Curtis Kaufman, senior vice president.
He said the bank will probably have to restructure or grant an extension for about 15% to 20% of its cattle loans.
Mr. Kaufman said he expects earnings will be hurt. Last year, the bank reported a 1% return on average assets.
Ironically, this year might have been a good one for cattle producers, after two bad ones, because rising demand for beef cattle is expected to push up prices.
However, the losses could wipe out any benefits of the higher price.
"Dead livestock don't bring you anything," said Gary Preszler, commissioner of the North Dakota Department of Banking and Financial Institutions. "It doesn't matter what the price is."