April 1, 2009

Cold and wet makes calving difficult

By Tina Foreman
Farmer Staff Writer

Spring is often looked at as a time of renewal. As the snow melts new life can be seen all around, from the fresh green grass and budding flowers to newborn livestock.
If you ask a cattle rancher what they think of spring, you are much more likely to hear them say work not renewal. In North Dakota springtime isn’t always a pleasant time, weather-wise, which can drastically increase your workload if you raise cattle. Springtime weather in North Dakota often means below freezing temperatures, flooding, and of course, there is always the potential of spring blizzards.
“We’re definitely earning our money and then some this spring,” says Larry Nelson. “The weather has been a little rough for calving, but I’m still very thankful that we aren’t south of here where they keep getting hit with snow.”
Nelson isn’t the only one earning his money this spring, although most of McKenzie County has been spared the spring blizzards that have dropped several feet of snow on other areas of the state. Ranchers have had a difficult time dealing with the wind and cold temperatures of recent weeks.
“I start calving at the end of February so I’m prepared for some bad weather,” says Chris Washburn. “Other ranchers in the area don’t start calving until the middle to end of March, so this cold weather is extremely hard on them.”
Nelson and Washburn begin their calving early because they raise pure bred Angus cattle and need their young steers to be mature enough for their spring sale in April.
“Calving during cold weather adds a lot of work,” comments Washburn. “When it is cold out the calves can’t get up and nurse; they’re just too cold. If mother can’t get them up to nurse they can freeze to death very fast.”
Calving during cold weather means more work for ranchers, especially when it comes to checking on the cattle. For some ranchers this means getting up several times during the night, donning all of their cold weather gear and traveling by 4-wheeler or horse through their cattle herd. Even if they can access their cattle by pickup, most ranchers will tell you that this is the least fun part of calving.
Once the calf is born, if it is too cold out they need to be taken away from the mother and placed in a warming box. That may sound simple, but the calf still needs nourishment to survive, which means that someone has to bottle-feed the calves. With some ranches having 10-12 calves a day, most of them coming during the night, this can be a huge job in itself. Once the calves are strong enough to return to their mothers, the rancher has to go through the daunting task of pairing the calves up with the right mother.
“My wife asked me the other day if I really like this, with everything I go through during calving,” laughs Washburn. “I guess I must. I’ve been in the oil patch and I know I’m not going back to that and I’m getting too old to try something new, so I suppose I’ll just stick with cattle.”
Washburn and Nelson are both about half done with their calving and can see the end. But most other ranchers in the county are just getting started, and many of them are concerned about the forecast of more cold weather and the threat of snow.
“I’m just getting going,” says Les Haugen. “I’ve had some froze ears  on newborn calves. I’m concerned about the weather forecast for next week because I should be getting busier by then and the forecast is calling for cold and snow.”
According to Haugen, the snow isn’t as big of a problem as the wind.
“Most of the time the cattle can take care of themselves,” says Haugen. “But when the wind blows we get low wind chills and with that comes more problems. When it gets really cold, it doesn’t matter if you calve in a barn or outside; it’s just too cold for the calves.”
While ranchers in McKenzie County fight the cold, they remain thankful and optimistic about the weather situation.
“I heard of one guy down south that lost 90 calves during a snowstorm,” adds Nelson. “That snow can make it nearly impossible to get to the calves. So I’m thankful that we just have the cold here and not the snow. The cold will make this calving season difficult, but it could be a lot worse.”