Blizzard wallops region during calving season

FARGO, N.D. -- A blizzard blew through the region on March 30 and 31, dumping and drifting about a foot of heavy snow from southeast Montana into eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, putting cattle producers on alert but creating no imme...

Wes Andrews, rancher, Bowman, N.D. (PHOTO COURTESY WES ANDREWS RANCH)

FARGO, N.D. -- A blizzard blew through the region on March 30 and 31, dumping and drifting about a foot of heavy snow from southeast Montana into eastern North Dakota and northwest Minnesota, putting cattle producers on alert but creating no immediate, catastrophic losses.

In North Dakota, State Veterinarian Susan Keller says it's too early to say what kind of animal health impact the storm has caused.

"If anything, it will result in stress on livestock -- calf scours (diarrhea), pneumonia," she says. She adds that good nutrition for mother cows is the first line of defense, followed by shelter and adequate help to watch mothers for birthing signs, and bringing newborns into shelters.

Calving timing is key, Keller says. Purebred operators calve earlier in an effort to get bull calves to useful size. Some like to calve when the ground is frozen to reduce scours problems, but many commercial herds in the north delay calving into May and June to avoid exactly this kind of storm.

Knute Thorsgard of Northwood, N.D., says his herd has about 500 cows and another 750 "short-term" cows for calving from late April to May. Thorsgard says two calves died in the storm, and cattle broke through a fence in the wind but were protected by the operation's windbreak and a grove of trees. Thorsgard says the lack of significant loss is the result of vigilance by the family and its feedlot manager, Marlo Hannestad.


West to east

It was a similar story along the storm's trek from west to east.

Randy Gorman, a cow-calf operator in Wibaux, Mont., just west of Beach, N.D., says he's happy he timed his 100-cow herd's calving to April 1 a few years ago.

"We got 8 inches [March 30], and some pretty good drifts," Gorman says. "It's wet, and I'm feeling fortunate right now we don't have calves yet."

Gorman's cattle were chilled by rain before the temperature turned cold. It was 13 degrees the morning of March 31, but climbed to the mid-30s by afternoon.

Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University Extension Service cow-calf field specialist, says cold, wet conditions can diminish mature cows' reserves and suck the life out of their newborn offspring.

"It is as if you soaked a down-filled coat in water and expected it to keep you warm," Rusche says. "If a cow is soaked, it quickly drops her critical temperature."

Luella Leland, who, with her husband, Melvin, run Leland Red Angus near Squaw Gap, N.D., east of Sidney, Mont., says her ranch had been on the north end of the storm.


"It was cold and windy," she said on March 31. "We got 2 to 3 inches of snow, but now the sun is out." She says it had gotten quite cold, and doesn't think the ranch lost anything, but says some calves might have had frost-bitten ears.

Wes Andrews, who ranches eight miles northwest of Bowman, N.D., says his herd of some 300 cows is about halfway through calving. He says the ranch probably had about a foot of snow, but ranchers were given adequate warning of its approach.

"We spent all day yesterday (March 30) getting ready to move everything behind windbreaks, get everything bedded down," he says. "The only one we lost that we know of is one born this morning, and we just missed it. The next thing now will be scours when it warms up."

Andrews says it's possible there would be some cattle lost if they drifted through or over fences. He says there is "no comparison" between this storm and the Oct. 4 blizzard that killed 43,000 livestock in South Dakota and thousands more in southeast North Dakota.

The cattle in that storm didn't have their winter hair coats and it rained several inches before the punishing winds came. "The good thing about this one is that it lasted during the night, and quit before noon," Andrews says. "If it would have lasted two or three days, it would have been worse."

Exiting cattle country

The storm carried a wallop as it exited through cattle areas in northwest Minnesota.

Erik Finney and his wife, Shannon, in Lancaster, Minn., were about 10 percent into their calving with their herd, which includes about 265 cows and bred heifers.


"Earlier in the week, I was watching reports on the internet," Erik says. "One report said we'd get an inch, but then my brother-in-law called and said we could get up to 20 inches, so that put us on high alert."

Three days before the storm, the Finneys started bringing cattle closer to the yard. "Typically, if it's nice we calve farther away in some woods in a pasture, but over there if something is born, you don't have much time to save them." When the snow started falling, the Finneys used it to build windbreaks and piled straw bales to give the cattle some shelter.

"We thought we were fortunate because we only had a couple of calves born during the storm," Erik said on April 1. "This afternoon, we found one that we'd missed during the checks. It was buried in the snow. It sure hurts when you find something like that. It jerks on your heartstrings."

Erik, 40, says he's in his 18th year on the ranch. The first winter in 1996 and 1997 was a bad one, with an April storm "about as ugly as I've ever seen," he says. "During calving season, I don't remember any that were worse than this."

Planting time issue?

Meanwhile, other farmers are looking at the impact of the storm from a cropping standpoint.

"We'll be lucky to be in the field by May 1 because it's going to take so long to get the ground thawed," says Bill Ongstad, a farmer from Harvey, N.D.

The new U.S. Department of Agriculture report of 81.5 million acres of soybeans is in the context of futures trading at above $12 per bushel. Farmers planning soybean acreage increases in the Dakotas would like to be able to plant earlier, so they can harvest earlier in the fall, he says.

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