(CNN) -- Like a scene from a scriptural parable, dark carcasses of cows and steers lie motionless in silent clusters across swaths of South Dakota.
An early blizzard caught ranchers off guard this week in the state, killing as many as 20,000 head of cattle, a state official says.
But ranchers say they are the real victims.
The storm left many of them in ruins, and now Washington is leaving them out in the cold.
"With the government shutdown and no farm bill in place, we need South Dakotans to help their neighbors," Gov. Dennis Daugaard said.
This year's federal farm legislation got hung up in Congress before the shutdown. There's no money to help the ranchers, and Daugaard is asking for donations.
South Dakota's civil air patrol did flyovers to take pictures of whole herds that keeled over together, dotting the gaping, snow-covered flatlands with big, black blotches.
Ranchers who thought they were doing the right thing were blindsided, said state veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven. Now they are dazed by their losses.
"The smart thing to do this time of year is to have cows and calf off to pasture," he said. "Then the storm blew in. We've never seen anything quite like this."
Oedekoven says he may never know the total number of livestock killed. South Dakota has asked ranchers to make lists of the animals they lost to help with the tally.
"It will be two weeks to a month before we have a better idea of the impact," Oedekoven said.
Only 2,000 have been confirmed dead so far, but crews are out removing more dead cattle blocking roads, where they fell over in their tracks.
The state has told drivers to watch out.
"Motorists must be aware that livestock carcasses or stray livestock may be present on or along the roadways at any time," the emergency management agency said in a statement.
Herds of livestock still alive are wandering aimlessly far from home.
"We have misplaced cattle everywhere," Oedekoven said. "The storm blew them 10 miles or more from where they are normally pastured."
The blizzard didn't necessarily dole out fate justly, rewarding the prudent and punishing the lax, he said.
"Some people were very well prepared and lost 50% of their herd. Some were not prepared and took no losses. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Some ranchers lost everything."
The state has issued ranchers a final, grim and expensive chore to take care of on top of their losses. They must dispose of the carcasses quickly, before they rot, and in accordance with regulations.
The ranchers can pay a factory to render them.
Or they can burn them themselves, or dig large pits at least four feet deep and bury them by the hundreds.
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