'Bring your boots': Ranchers deal with record snowfall as calving season hits stride
ASHLEY, N.D. — It was 1885 when Terry Ulrich's family homesteaded the farm he operates with his brother, wife and hired man about a mile north of the South Dakota border. So he has a pretty good historical context for what a normal winter looks like in his area.
The winter of 2018-19 will go down as one of the wettest in his farm's history, right up there with the wet years of the 1990s. The result has been a lot of mud and a lot of slop.
"Bring your boots," Polly Ulrich, Terry's wife, advises visitors.
Ashley's snowfall this season has eclipsed past records, including the infamous winter of 1996-97. Through April 15, 110.2 inches of snow had fallen in the town, according to the National Weather Service. The Ulrich place measured 117 inches. The two so-called "bomb cyclone" storms that hit the region in late March and early April were particularly problematic, coming as they did in the heart of calving season.
"This is kind of abnormal to have that much," Terry said.
The Ulrichs' calving start date was April 1. Usually, a bunch of cows calve early, in the last two weeks of March.
"Thankfully they were late this year," Terry said.
Most years, the Ulrichs expect at least one storm in April. But it's pretty safe after the 10th of the month. This year, the last blizzard started on the 10th. But Terry is philosophical about it; the storm dropped "only a foot" at his farm, while areas across the border into South Dakota had 18 to 24 inches.
The good thing about April snow is that it melts quickly. The bad thing about April snow is that it melts quickly.
Terry said last summer and fall were particularly rainy on his place, with 24 to 28 inches of rain falling across the farm. The snowy winter that followed means that any low-lying area has filled with water, and the ground is saturated. Water, after the last storm, covered eight places on the gravel road leading to the Ulrich farm.
The normal calving pen the Ulrichs use is so muddy that they had to put up panels and create a make-shift pen in a drier spot. As soon as possible, they move calves to a calving pasture near the yard, where there is more open space and grass.
Even still, keeping calves clean and dry isn't always possible.
North Dakota State University Extension Service has warned producers to be on the lookout for signs of scours in cattle. Bacteria and viruses cause scours, but environmental factors like mud, overcrowding, contaminated lots, calving heifers and cows together, wintering and calving in the same area, storms, heavy snow, cold temperatures and rainfall are all stressful to the newborn calf and increase its exposure to infectious agents, Extension officials say.
"Calf scours are most often associated with infectious, and environmental and nutritional stresses," said NDSU Extension veterinarian Gerald Stokka.
Treating calves with scours includes administering fluids and electrolytes to fight dehydration and antibiotics when necessary.
"In these situations, it is best to leave the calf on milk and add several 2-quart electrolyte feedings a day to replace the fluid that is being lost through diarrhea," Stokka said.
Proper nutrition for cows before calving can help prevent some sickness in calves, Extension officials say. At the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center in Streeter, N.D., beef herdsman Tim Long said the center's vaccine protocol and nutrition program have helped keep sickness at bay. So, too, has the center's calving pastures, which give pairs room to spread out.
"It does wonders for controlling any kinds of contagious disease if you can get them out on grass," Long said. He added that the grass doesn't have to be "nice green grass," which is in short supply at this point in the year.
Streeter was second to Ashley on the National Weather Service's list of high season snow totals, with 98.5 inches, but Long said they've had few calving or sickness problems there.
The Ulrichs haven't had many problems with scours yet, though they are cognizant that it could come. Other problems have had them treating calves regularly, though.
"I'm worried about pneumonia right now. It's a little cold in the evenings," Terry said.
Getting calves out on grass has helped, and warmer weather would help, too.
"The best cure for our problems out here for farmers and ranchers is sunshine," he said.
Trouble on the farm
Calving through snow and cold requires more labor and causes more stress than calving in more pleasant conditions. Terry, his brother Gary and their long-time hired man Tyler Haugom, have been going "from morning to night."
"We call it bootcamp. It's a killer out here," Terry said. "It's stress on the body. Tyler will tell you; he'll say, mental stress."
There's something going on all the time, Terry said. Clearing snow, bedding down cattle and other tasks necessary to keep a ranch clean take time.
Along with more sickness, there also are problems with getting "cantankerous, grouchy cows and calves, too" to cooperate. There are cows that don't want their calves, and calves that don't know how to suck. One mother cow at the Ulrich place doesn't want her calf, while another mother has a sick calf. The mother with the sick calf has been trying to take the other cow's calf.
"I'm almost ready to let her have it," Terry said.
Long said the research center has enough labor to handle the stresses, a luxury many ranches don't have. The research center also has adequate feed supplies. But for many, a winter that started with October snowfall has depleted supplies of hay and other feed. Long recommends looking for supplementation until cattle can get to pasture. Things like distillers grains and other byproducts can help make hay last longer, he said.
The Ulrichs are getting low on feed, even with the corn silage they chopped last year for the first time in years. But just as worrisome are concerns about getting into the field. Terry said they usually are planting wheat by now and would be starting corn soon. Even with some days reaching into the 60s, heavy snowpack still remains on the sides of some hills and across fields.
"I'm thinking we're going to be maybe a week into May" before planting can start, he said.
Accessing fields will be difficult, as some roads are under water or washed out. The Ulrichs had planned to take some open heifers to a pasture to get them out of the muck last week but were unable to because of a washed-out culvert.
But farmers and ranchers in the region have dealt with cold and wet springs before and still are making plans to get planting as soon as they can and get pairs to pasture. Long said last year's conditions, also colder and wetter than most, were good preparation for this year.
"I'm thinking last year taught a lot of lessons that we're getting through this year a little more prepared," Long said.