What ranchers can do to help calves in cold and storms

Ranchers in the midst of calving season were hit with a strong spring blizzard recently, and more adverse conditions may be on the way.

Cattle are covered in snow from the spring storm that plagued the region during calving season.
Contributed / Schmidt Ranch
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Calving time can be a stressful time of year for even the most seasoned rancher and producer. However, mix the already demanding time of year with the brutal winter-like weather the region has been experiencing and for many it can become a calving nightmare.

Gerald Stokka, North Dakota State University Extension veterinarian and livestock stewardship specialist, weighed in on the challenges cattle producers are facing due to the unfavorable weather conditions, including the mid-April blizzard that struck the region . While he has insight as an Extension veterinarian, he also knows first hand what cattle ranchers are up against due to this storm, as he is one himself.

“This is a spring storm that is a little unusual in the breadth and the scope of it,” Stokka said, calling the storm brutal. “We did lose one calf last night. But there were others born that were saved.”

Stokka was thankful his operation only received about eight to ten inches of snow in the blizzard, as opposed to other areas of the region that had as much as 4 feet of snow. Accumulated snow on the ground can be dangerous for calves. If deep enough the calves can suffocate and get buried or lodged under the snow, making it impossible for their mother to get to them.

In an attempt to avoid this, many ranchers move their herds to shelter or more optimal locations that block the gusts of wind that plague much of the prairie during these storms.


“What you do is you depend on those cows taking care of their calves. Cows are pretty smart, they find places out of the wind. It’s amazing. They can find places to calve and if they take care of that calf then that calf has a good chance of surviving,” Stokka said.

A calf receives a warm bath in an attempt to bring its body temperature back up.
Contributed / Polly Ulrich

If a rancher does find a calf that does not appear to be doing well, the No. 1 goal is to warm them up immediately. Depending on the severity of the situation, producers can either use a hot box or a warm bath to help bring their body temperature up. For more extreme cases, Stokka recommends utilizing a warm bath. However he warns if the calf is unconscious and unable to hold its head up during the bath, they can drown if they are unable to keep their head above water. Once the calf is warm, making sure it receives colostrum or a milk replacement product is important.

This spring storm has proved to be a trying time for many cattle producers and ranchers. More snow and rain is in the forecast, along with abnormally cold conditions. But to Stokka, this is when stewardship really kicks into full gear.

“Last night as I laid in bed, I couldn’t sleep very well thinking about the cattle. This is the stewardship part. Thinking about the cattle outside and hoping everything was OK," he said. "The wind was blowing and it was not nice out. Couldn’t sleep, prayed a little bit. Then I get up in the morning and start checking and things are actually a lot better than I expected. It’s a grateful type of reward that you get when the cow has done more work than you could have, she’s taking care of those calves during a very difficult time. I have tremendous respect for them.”

Emily grew up on a small grains and goat farm in southern Ohio. After graduating from The Ohio State University, she moved to Fargo, North Dakota to pursue a career in ag journalism with Agweek. She enjoys reporting on livestock and local agricultural businesses.
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