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Drifts formed around cows and shelters at Twedt Red Angus in McHenry, N.D. Courtesy Samuel Twedt

Heavy snow, strong winds make calving, cattle feeding difficult in Dakotas

MONANGO, N.D. — Mark Wagner has memories of the April 1997 storm that hit North Dakota, and he's heard all about the 1966 storm before he was born that took lives, both human and livestock. He thinks the blizzard of March 2019 might go down in history with those past events.

The storm began moving through the region on Wednesday, March 13. Wagner's area, located south of Jamestown, was among the hardest hit. Nearby Ellendale, N.D., had reports of 12 inches of snow, Edgeley, N.D., to the north had 14, and Ashley, N.D., had 16, according to the National Weather Service late Thursday morning.

The snow, though, was only part of the problem. Winds, described by some places as "hurricane force," were moving not just the new-fallen snow but also the snow accumulated on the ground from a particularly snowy winter. Winds measured in excess of 50 mph or even 60 mph were not uncommon across the Dakotas.

Wagner is about two-thirds done calving, and while he doesn't wish for the inclement weather, he also isn't surprised by it.

A video system in one of Sara VandeHoven Hinrichs' barns north of Carrington helps keep an eye on calving cows."It's not fun, but I'd like to think that I'm prepared so that I hopefully am not doing an injustice to my cows by having them have calves now," he said.

Preparedness was the key for many. Ranchers across the region reported locking cows in barns ahead of the storm or making sure their livestock could reach some wind protection. Sara VandeHoven Hinrichs, northwest of Carrington, N.D., said cows that were close to calving were in the barns, and the rest were protected by shelterbelt. A video system in one barn helped them keep an eye on the cows there, but there was no camera in the other barn or on the cows outside.

"You just have to trust that you did the best you could to protect them," she said.

Snow drifting over fences was a big concern of the March 13-14, 2019, storm.Troy Hadrick, in Faulkton, S.D., said he was thankful that it hadn't rained before the snow started. As of Thursday morning, he was evaluating what to do. He couldn't make it through the snow drifts to the feedlot to check on calves there. His heifers are calving, but other family members are caring for them. His cows are about 10 days away from calving, and his biggest concern for them was that the drifts would get high enough that the cows would walk over fences.

"Every once in awhile, I can kind of see my cows," he said. "We've had a really snowy winter, and this is just added to it."

Wagner said trying to decide what to do was probably the hardest part. Moving snow was impractical as the wind continued to blow, making feeding difficult.

"You know they're hungry, and you know you have to feed them," he said.

For many in the Dakotas, the winter started with heavy, wet snow that fell in October. While that snow melted, more followed in the winter months. Jamestown, N.D., for example, experienced its second snowiest February.

Cows huddle near windbreaks as the wind continues to blow snow on March 14, 2019.But there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel. The National Weather Service forecast for the coming week appears to improve once the blizzard moves out, with above-freezing temperatures and sun expected.

When conditions improve, there'll be snow to be moved, and better weather will mean melting and mud. But Wagner said that's all to be expected.

"There is no free ride. This is a lifestyle. There are bumps in the road," he said. "I'm going to be as optimistic about this storm as I can."

For Wagner, the situation is particularly bittersweet. His two older sons are on the Ellendale High School team that made the boys Class B state tournament in Minot.

"If we'd have had nice, normal weather, I probably would have slid away," he said, noting that he has help from neighbors and others. "But obviously, when this storm is coming, that pretty much canceled any thoughts of going anywhere."

The storms of the past often came up with little warning, leading to losses of lives, both livestock and human, and Wagner thinks the technology available today likely gave most people a chance to get where they needed to be and get their cattle ready. Forecasters had been tracking the storm for more than a week.

"If we hadn't had forecasters telling us you're in for the mother of all storms, we'd have never known," Wagner said.

Wagner's wife and kids left early to make it to Minot. Since he knew the storm was coming, he was able to be prepared. Calves were bedded down, and cows near calving are close at hand. "I've got them locked up in a little pen behind my barn with windbreak on three sides of it," he said. "I'm prepared."

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