Rugged North Dakota ranchers raise cold-hardy cattle
Grassy Meadow Ranch owners Dave and Karissa Daws decided shortly after they founded their cattle business north of Michigan in 2011 to move the calving start date from early spring to early winter.
MICHIGAN, N.D. — Tail in the air, a Red Angus calf frisked in circles around its mother while another youngster curled up in straw on the south side of a shed and a third peaked out of a lean-to shelter.
All three of the weeks-old livestock at Grassy Meadows Ranch and the other 25 born since Christmas were robust, and none of them appeared cold on a January day when the mercury read minus 14.
“They’re pretty hardy little creatures if they can stay out of the wind,” said Karissa Daws, who owns Grassy Meadow Ranch with her husband, Dave.
The Dawses decided shortly after they founded their cattle business north of Michigan in 2011 to move the calving start date from early spring to early winter. The couple started their operation with nine registered Red Angus and seven commercial pairs that began calving in March and over the years, adjusted the breeding schedule so the calves would begin calving in late December.
Winter calving gives the Dawses a marketing advantage because the bulls are about a year old when they host their annual January Red Angus production sale and 18 months old by June when their buyers turn them out with cows, Dave Daws said.
Another benefit from calving early is that the Dawses are finished by the time spring planting begins. Besides their livestock operation, the couple raise crops, including wheat, canola, soybeans and corn for commercial sale and alfalfa, oats, millet and corn silage for cattle feed.
This year the bulk of Grassy Meadow Ranch’s herd of about 100 cows will have their calves on the ground by March 1.
Though cold snaps like the one between Christmas 2021 and Jan. 10, 2022, can cause logistical problems, such as a pickup that wouldn’t start and fingers that stiffened and fumbled when opening gates, the owners of Grassy Meadow Ranch believe that’s preferable to the wet spring conditions that are a breeding ground for calf diseases.
The Dawses use ultrasound to determine calving dates so they can pinpoint when the cows are due and move them inside an insulated barn if the thermometer dips too low. When the temperature is near 20 below zero, inside the barn the mercury rises to about 20 above.
After the calves are born, the couple move them and their mothers into individual pens inside the barn where they keep them for at least 24 hours before turning them out into corral with a hoop shed and lean-to they can go into for shelter from the wind.
“During the really cold snaps, they stay in longer,” Karissa Daws said.
Within 24 hours of birth, Karissa vaccinates the calves for pneumonia and gives them shots of Vitamin A, Vitamin D and micro-minerals.
During the week of Jan. 10, Dave and Karissa Daws were tearing down corral panels in the building that housed their bull sale. They sold 30 yearling bulls and 10 bred females at the sale that attracted buyers from the upper Midwest, including the states of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota to Grassy Meadows Ranch and online via an auction service.
Grassy Meadow Ranch strives to sell cattle that will produce calves with good performance qualities, including high carcass and weaning weights, while still maintaining the calving ease and maternal instinct for which Red Angus are known, David Daws said.
After the Dawes finished with the sale tear-down, they planned to gear up for a big round of births. About 30 cows are due to calve the week of Jan. 17.
The 2023 production sale will be one of the Dawes’ rewards for working in the cold weather of late 2021 and early 2222 and the other challenges they will face this year.
“What’s really rewarding is those new bulls getting to go to their new homes,” Karissa Daws said.
In the short term, the couple was grateful that the forecast for the week of Jan. 10 promised a bit of a respite from the frigid temperatures of the past couple.
“When it’s 5 to 10 above, you can take your gloves off and still function,” Dave Daws said. “Most days we’d rather deal with the cold than the mud."