TAPPEN, N.D. - One could be excused for thinking the central North Dakota weather on March 30 was an early April Fools' Day joke - and a cruel one at that. The northwest wind bit at exposed skin and sent snowflakes fluttering wildly, the conditions fit for neither human nor beast.
But, as February, March and April are the prevalent calving times for the region, the repercussions of the weather on both humans and beasts can be a harsh reality.
At Craig and Leslie Kemmet's place east of Tappen, N.D., their son, Hayden McHenry, and their hired man, Bryan Gardner, were bedding down straw while the Kemmets sorted pairs. Calves huddled in shelters or against windbreaks. In the Kemmet's expanded barn were orphan calves, cows with newborns and cows waiting to calve.
A half dozen miles southeast of the Kemmets were the Kuipers, John and Carol and their son, Brian. They have a barn full of lambs with a few ewes left to drop. Lambing started Feb. 1, and calving now is underway.
"It's been one of the tougher years," John Kuipers said, noting the up and down temperatures. "We've gone through a lot of straw for them."
Similar scenes are playing out throughout the Upper Midwest. Ranchers fight the cold to keep calves alive, with ears and tails intact. But at the Dickinson Research and Extension Center, Kris Ringwall and his staff have six years of data to suggest there is another way that may save on the intense labor of calving in the cold. All it will take is changing a mindset that has persisted since the 1800s.
Why do we calve in the cold?
Why do ranchers in this frigid region calve in some of the coldest, wettest conditions of the year? Ringwall, the director of North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research and Extension Center, said it goes back to the homesteading era.
The homesteaders built barns, mostly for their horses. But they had room for cows, since most only had 10 or so. The barns were cozy and held the hay and straw to make it through the winter, so calving out those small numbers was acceptable and allowed for spring fieldwork, Ringwall said. As the decades wore on and herds grew larger, producers put up pole barns to bring in more animals.
For many, it worked and continues to work. As Ringwall pointed out, producers in the region have gotten good at calving in the cold.
Crop and Progress reports released April 2 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service reported calving in North Dakota was 39 percent complete and in Montana was 40 percent complete, showing that calving in the winter months remains popular in the region. South Dakota and Minnesota reports did not list calving progress.
The Kemmets start date for embryo-transplanted cows was Feb. 25. They prefer the cold to the slop.
"We live in a pretty flat area," Craig Kemmet said. "We try to get done before we get a lot of mud. That hasn't helped this year. There's mud everywhere."
They calve out 350 cow-calf pairs. As of March 30, there were 270 on the ground.
"We're in the homestretch," Kemmet said.
In recent years, the Kemmets have built onto their barn. They also have a video system that allows them to watch from inside. Even so, they're still out about every hour when the temperature dips below 20 F.
"This is not for the faint of heart," Kemmet said.
"You'll find out if you really like cows on a spring calving out cows like this," agreed Daron Lacina. He is calving out 100 cows north of Pingree, N.D., also with the help of video monitoring.
Lacina also works in agronomy, so he likes to get calving out of the way in March and April before he gets busy in the fields. In the event that planting goes early, the weather is good enough for the cows to manage.
Jordan Kouba and her husband, Beau, and his brother, Will, start calving out their herd of about 250 around March 1 near Regent, N.D. Heifers go first, then cows; they stagger to conserve barn space. Beau checks nights and Will checks days.
"We like to have it all done so we can get them out on pasture so we're not feeding them all that hay into June," Kouba said.
Cole Cotton, of Orient, S.D., said his family runs 400 cow-calf pairs, and they also own a seed business and raise row crops. Heifers start March 1; cows start April 1.
"We need to have 90 percent of calving done before (fieldwork) starts," he said. "Fortunately, we have good barn space and facilities for early weather."
Joey Myers and her boyfriend, Scott Bailey, need to get done calving early to sell into their desired market: show cattle. They raise registered Simmental, Angus and Hereford calves near Towner, N.D. and calve out about 150 cows. They use a lot of embryos and sexed semen to get mainly show-quality heifers, and they start calving Feb. 1.
"The show cattle, they want them just a little bit bigger in the fall," Myers said.
But show cattle also need to have all ears and tails intact, so it's important for Myers and Bailey to check about every two hours, all day. Even that isn't always enough.
"We still lost a few ears after the calf was dry and had been in the barn for a few hours," Myers said. "It isn't fun when it's that cold and you have that much snow."
The Kuipers set their lambing start so the lambs can hit the fat market starting around June. By March 30, they had about 270 ewes that had lambed, with about 30 left to go. The lambing season moves right into calving season. John Kuipers said once they're already checking and working with ewes, they might as well start checking cows and get it all done with before spring fieldwork starts.
He's considered moving the cow calving date into May so that at least they wouldn't be fighting the cold. But he worries they'd miss out on seeing the lambs and calves kick and play as they hurry to the fields. And he's concerned about conception rates if breeding moved to the heat of summer.
August turnout brings May calves
While winter calving works for many people, Ringwall said the labor costs and the stress have driven some out of business.
"There is a limit to the pole barn space, and the costs are going up and our labor is going up," he said. "If you're going to pay what a young couple could make working off the farm so that you can have help calving and to run the cows, you can't afford to run the cows."
The Dickinson Research and Extension Center in 2011 moved their bull turnout to August, which moved their 2012 calving to May and June. And they haven't looked back.
"We can look at how cattle have performed and bred up for later calving," Ringwall said. "We really don't see any difference."
Despite the heat of breeding season, cows have rebred at about the same rate as they did with the earlier dates. Calves gain about the same rate when they're born early as born late.
What has changed is the amount of labor required to calve out. The cows go out to cool-season grasses around the end of April or beginning of May. The center staff only checks cows once a day, as the worries over problems with chilled calves go away, Ringwall said. Calf death loss was almost cut in half, from 6.5 percent to 3.7 percent. May storms don't cause the problems that earlier ones do.
"We haven't even had a hiccup yet," Ringwall said.
For the producers who want to get done calving before fieldwork starts, Ringwall said there's no problem in being in a tractor while calving is underway.
"She'll go find her spot and she's going to calve when she's going to calve," he said. "And you aren't going to be there anyway."
Amy Rorvig said her family has calved out beginning in mid April as long as she can remember, and the later-than-normal dates work well for them. Rorvig works with her dad, Dan Rorvig, her fiance, Taryl Smith, and long-time hired man, Jeff Iverson, and they calve out about 800 cows and 400 heifers every year near McVille, N.D.
Despite the size of the operation, calving tends to be fairly low-stress, Rorvig said. They check the cows twice a day. There are no middle-of-the-night checks.
"My dad has always said, chances are you're going to cause a bigger problem than there ever was going to be" by disturbing a cow, she said. "The strong survive."
Pat Erickson, her husband, Matt, and Matt's dad, Jerry, calve out about 260 cows. Though April 1 is their start date, they calve on pasture as well. The pasture includes a wooded area for protection. They also have a 60-head fall-calving herd.
The Ericksons, east of Fertile, Minn., don't have a calving barn, so they don't calve in the coldest months. Usually by April, the fields are dry and the temperatures warm enough for the calves. This year might be more challenging, Pat Erickson said.
The Ericksons finish all of their calves, meaning they feed them until slaughter, and the Rorvigs have a backgrounding lot. Backgrounding refers to putting calves on feed after weaning. Ringwall said those things make a difference. Calves born later are obviously smaller than calves that had an extra couple months to grow. That makes either feeding the calves after weaning or delaying weaning until January helpful considerations, he said.
Switching to later calving is not necessarily a cure-all, Ringwall said. Early pasture has to be available, and predators can be a concern. If a rancher doesn't have the space or feed to background, that may limit marketing decisions.
Ringwall said producers should research and plan before moving calving dates, because once they're moved they can't easily be changed back. Consider talking to someone else who's done it. Also consider the changes it will mean to marketing. Even registered breeders can find a market for a different calving time, but it might mean some changes, he said.
May-June calving might keep some people in business who are having trouble keeping up with the winter calving grind, he said.
"Cow-calf producers need to just take charge and say, 'We're going to raise cattle in a way that works for each individual,'" he said.