I encourage several calves to wake up from a late afternoon nap in the straw. I check for regular breathing, glowing eyes, prick ears, and piles of manure that smell and look normal. Our calves have just been through two April blizzards within days of each other, and some may be getting sick from the stress.
I take off a glove and note the number of a calf’s earring. She performs a normal colored but soft saddle in front of me. She squirts, then rushes over to headbutt a peer; she will be treated with medication to prevent further diarrhea and concerns.
A warning flashes on my iPhone screen. Caution: blizzard warning. I press my WeatherMate app: Snowfall amounts of about 20 inches are possible over far western North Dakota, from Beach to Williston to Crosby. . . Winds could blow up to 65 mph.
I confirm with the other five weather apps on my smartphone.
This third blizzard will start with rain, turn to ice and turn to snow. It will snap hundreds of utility poles and leave thousands of people without power – some projections until the end of May. When the storm hits and our generator shuts down, I’ll curse and cry as I shovel an eight-foot-tall, thirty-foot-long drift to provide a path to the water for my dozen purebred cows left to calf for as I mumble desperate prayers this fogs up my ski goggles and asks God to help my husband as he installs our battery charger on the industrial generator to provide the electricity that will run water to our other three reservoirs of storage that our son, Wyatt, plows while operating our skid steer loader and attached snow blower. (A technician arrives a few days later to correct his wiring error and restore our generator and peace of mind.)
But before that third storm arrives and temporarily gets the better of my temper, I sneak up the slope and snow to another group of couples and remind myself that we’re lucky. All winter we prayed for moisture because we are in extreme drought. We have almost finished calving our 100 cows and heifers. We have aerial shelters for our couples and bulls that we feed for our buyers. We have plenty of fodder and straw on site. Our two dedicated employees will help us prepare and our teenagers will be there to help us during the blizzard. We haven’t lost a single calf. We are lucky; others prepared as diligently, worked harder and slept less than we did. But we didn’t have the strength of the wind and snow that others fought. The benefits of humidity have arrived in devastating fashion for many ranchers in the region.
The ranches south of us experienced winds reaching 80 km/h with more than two feet of snow: the definition of a killer blizzard. Phone calls with friends, news reports, and photos and videos on social media document their efforts to save newborn calves. Ranchers maneuvered four-wheel-drive tractors with floodlights and front-end loaders through near-zero visibility to fend off snow and create paths to water and food for their livestock. Cowboys and cowgirls on horseback rode through drifts higher than the horse with calves slung over their saddles. Family members carried white-covered calves in their arms and rode through the swirling storm for shelter and warmth as cows huddled near windbreaks and corral fences as melting flakes frosted their ears and their tail.
I witness the ingenuity and bustle – coolers and storage trailers with space heaters converted into sheds for warming calves. Master bathroom tubs filled with hot water for incubating chilled newborns. Equipment storage buildings emptied and covered with straw for work dams and fresh calves.
Sleep only comes for an hour or so at a time for many. Schools are closing; ranch kids work night shifts alongside moms and dads. Grandmothers and grandfathers shed any notion of retreat and take turns re-laying shelters, transporting food, clearing snow, caring for sick calves and grilling a hot meal – no electricity needed – for the hand -work. The emergency preparation started a few days before. The recovery efforts of the last few weeks after each storm.
Some ranches calve in May and June to avoid blizzards like this, but many commercial producers choose April calving for multiple reasons that make average sense. April is generally a mild month; the last severe blizzard to hit this region was in May 2011. April coordinates well with seasonal workloads. April calving is the result of ideal breeding season conditions from late June to July, when pasture nutrition, pasture supply and temperatures favor the best fertility, libido, conception rates and long-term health and development of the corresponding calves.
The cowboy adage says it takes a deadly blizzard to break a drought. We go from D3 to D2 drought. As the snowdrifts disappear, the calf losses accumulate. An insurance agent tells our ND Angus Association board that a ranch has reported 500 calves dead. Livestock insurance and compensation program will help you. There are still financial losses. There is an emotional loss. The burdens that herders still carry after the last rescued calf left their arms and was returned to its mother.
As I walk among the sleeping calves lying and enjoying the sunshine in our northern pasture on the last day of April, I hope that as the temperatures rise, every herder’s spirit will improve. A Colossal Anne heifer tagged 208, whose sire I named Storm, sniffs my hand, shakes her head and rushes over to her mother.