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Even during a blizzard, cattle still have to be fed. Photo taken Feb. 6, 2019. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

Why do so few have livestock? Look outside for a clue

Sometimes, when you think about what a small percentage of our population is involved in agriculture and the even smaller percentage involved in livestock, you might ask why that is.

I don't ask why.

A couple weeks ago, when our temperature in central North Dakota hit somewhere around -35 F, I knew why people, over generations, had moved toward city living and indoor jobs. The night after that low temperature, it had warmed all the way up to -25. We lost power, off and on, over a six hour period. The linecrews (bless them) got the power back on, and it warmed back up in the house in short order. But without electricity, a bunch of water fountains for the cattle had frozen. My husband and father-in-law got to spend the frigid day trying to thaw water and get heating elements going.

I know a family with a small herd of sheep. When those cold temperatures hit, a few of their ewes decided, hey, let's all drop our lambs. They ended up with a whole slew of new babies, including two sets of triplets. Five of those six triplets survived ... because the family brought them into their home to get them warm.

My dad's cows calve from January to March. He knows it's going to get cold, but in south central Montana, it doesn't usually stay bitterly cold for long. This year, it's staying bitterly cold. Dad is out, all hours of the day and night, trying to get pairs into the relative comforts of his small, insulated calving barn. The calf warmer runs almost constantly, sometimes with more than one calf inside. Even after they're dried off and warmed up, the new babies shiver when they go outside. Despite the care they've gotten, some of them still are getting frostbite on their ears.

We took a small number of Dad's cows on shares this year, as the veterinarian thought they'd calve later than Dad's intended end date for calving of April 1. Calving after April 1 is actually perfect for us, so we took them. Unfortunately, the vet seems to have been a little off on his assessment of some of the cows. One of them calved out in the open, far earlier than we could have expected, and the calf died from the cold. Now, we've got a number of cows we're watching closer, just in case. I stood out in the wind the other night, using the pickup headlights as a flashlight, to try to see if anything was going on in the cows. Within minutes, the exposed skin on my face was burning, my fingers tingled inside my gloves, and I counted myself fortunate that my day job consists largely of sitting at a computer.

So often, people in agriculture do things in conditions that would seem ridiculous to other people. That day when it was -35, most schools in our area cancelled classes for the day. Some stores closed. Many people didn't have to go to work. But the cows still had to get fed and bedded down. Calves and lambs still were born. The workload increases rather than decreases. Those who choose to have livestock know that they don't get to stay inside when it gets cold and snowy or, for that matter, when it gets hot and sweaty.

Maybe the people who stick with this life are just tougher than others. Or just more stubborn. But it should come as no surprise that so few people choose a life with such uncomfortable demands and so many unpredictable variables. We probably should be surprised that so many keep doing it.