By Michael Hirtzer and Renita D. Young
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The first blizzard of the season in the continental United States was due to bring heavy snowfall and howling winds on Thursday as it moved northeast from the Rocky Mountains into the northern Plains.
The National Weather Service (NWS) warned of poor visibility and hazardous driving conditions with winds gusting up to 50 miles per hour as rainfall turned to snow from Thursday night through rush hour on Friday across the eastern half of the Dakotas and parts of Minnesota and Nebraska.
"Travel will be very difficult to impossible, including during the morning commute on Friday," the NWS said in an advisory for northern and northeastern South Dakota.
Between 8-16 inches (20-40 cm) of snow was forecast in northeastern Minnesota, said Joe Calderone, senior NWS forecaster in the Twin Cities.
"This is a fairly large system," Calderone said, adding that it could stretch from Wyoming to Wisconsin. "Anywhere south of that will be a rain system."
The Dakotas historically see their first snowfall in October or November. This season, however, conditions have been warmer and drier than normal. About 72 percent of South Dakota was abnormally dry, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.
Cattle ranchers in South Dakota moved their animals closer to food and water sources ahead of the storm, according to Silvia Christen, executive director of the South Dakota Stockgrowers Association.
"The storm here today has everyone on edge from an emotional standpoint," Christen said.
About 38,000 cattle and 5,000 horses and sheep died in a blizzard in October 2013, with many of the animals succumbing to hypothermia, she said. The blizzard came too early in the season for livestock to grow their winter coats and add extra layers of fat as protection against bitter cold and drifting snows.
This year, the cattle have had more time to build protective fatty layers.
"That storm taught us some lessons," said Larry Stomprud, who lost about one-quarter of his 300-head cattle herd at his ranch near Faith, South Dakota.
"This is the first blast of winter. We'll give them (cattle) some hay to keep the oven fueled," Stomprud added.
(Additional reporting by Theopolis Waters in Chicago; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)