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Calving cold: Blizzards sped things up

MANSFIELD, S.D. — Calving came a bit earlier than planned, and right into the teeth of some of the coldest, snowiest conditions Michael Fischbach has seen.

Fischbach, 45, farms with his wife Becky. They operate 2,800 acres, including alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat, and maintain 150 head of stock cows, which are in the midst of calving.

In February, the cows "get all of the attention," he says, with a grin.

Usually the Fischbachs aim to start calving about Jan. 20, with the first-calf heifers, and then start the more mature cows about three weeks later.

"This year that didn't quite work," Mike says. "The cows started off about 16 days earlier than they were expected to, and kind of overlapped a little more than they normally would."

On Feb. 9, the heifers were largely done calving, other than four that were bred by bulls rather than through artificial insemination. The cows were supposed to start calving Feb. 9 but already were more than one-third finished.

"It's been fast," he says, with a smile.

Michael theorizes that the open winter through Christmas allowed the calves to grow and develop a little quicker than they would otherwise. "And when these blizzards hit, that spurred everything and we're off to the races," he says. "It's kind of common if a low pressure is coming through it kind of sets them off. It happens."

Ag's valentines

Michael went to South Dakota State University for a bachelor's degree in biology and fisheries management and then on for a master's degree. But in 1997, the farm called him back to a career at home. After about a year, he bought 17 head of stock cows at the sale barn at Redfield, S.D., and the herd has been growing ever since.

Becky was from Aberdeen, S.D., where her parents worked at the School for Blind and Visually Impaired. Mike and Becky met when both worked at Hub City Livestock in Aberdeen. She was working in the office. An older daughter, Chelsea, is grown and a mother. And then came Josephine "Josie," 6, who thinks all of the cattle are "special" and helps write numbers on the identification tags.

Calving anytime is a challenge, Mike says.

If it is in April, producers deal with mud.

In March, you can have some blizzards.

In February, you have cold. This season, they had wind chills of 40- to 50-below zero, and quite a few nights with 20- to 25-below zero.

"The main thing is getting the calves in where it's warm, so they don't freeze their ears, freeze a foot, or basically freeze and die," he says. "That's our biggest thing — staying on top of that."

Calving season is an around-the-clock enterprise. Mike aims to get out every hour or hour-and-a-half — for certain every two hours. "Sometimes you get a little tired," he admits.

In the mornings, Mike catches a nap and Becky stands watch for a while. They can see some of the activity with binoculars from the back window. "If she sees something, she makes sure I get out there and take care of it," he says.

Wet ears of newly-born calves can get frostbite in a matter of minutes. "We haven't had anything froze real bad — just the tips," he says. The cattle yard is set up with hay stacked on the west and is protected from the north by a tree belt. Much of Fischbach's day is taken up with putting out bedding.

Cows, pigs, cows

Mike's father, Ron Fischbach, bought this place in the 1960s. For a short time, they had cattle, but in the mid-1970s, they switched to hogs. On both sides of the barn, Ron built confinement sides that are insulated. In the 1990s, the Fischbachs got out of hogs after a market crash.

"When I came back and got cows, I tore all of the hog equipment out, and set it up for cattle — hung heaters so we could calve early in the year," Mike says.

The Fischbachs started using artificial insemination on the cow herd, with just their home-raised animals. "I try to look for something ... balanced. Not just something that'll work for a terminal product, but something that will give me good maternal-to-terminal product — good growth," he says. "And we're really now starting to focus on the carcass quality and the efficiency."

Currently, they feed to about 900 pounds before they take the animals to a sale barn. They are considering feeding out some cattle in the future.

Values shift from year to year.

"This year was a little bit lower than what we've done in the past," he says. "In the past three years, our steers have gotten around $1,300 a head, so it was real good."

The setup is perfect for calving. When the cows come in, he puts them in the heated sides until they give birth and he keeps the calf in the heated part for a day or day and a half. If a calf is in any kind of trouble he can warm them up with warm water and a tub.

Once the calf is eating and is up and going, they can transition into a middle part of the barn — a loafing area, which isn't heated but is a good transition for another day or two, before they go outside to the calf shelters.

There they wait until spring, when they'll experience real warmth for the first time.