Winter calving requires readiness

Cold temps? No problem for ranchers used to winter calving

A cow watches a calf frolic as she keeps an eye on a recently born calf at the Bruner Angus ranch near Drake. Submitted photo

McHENRY COUNTY – The Frey Angus ranch near Granville saw its first calves of the season born in mid-January, just as the region began to feel the brunt of winter.

The key to winter calving is to be prepared for cold weather, and the Freys have the experience to know what it takes to be prepared. So even a long cold spell doesn’t phase them much. With plenty of barn space, they don’t worry much about the animals.

“Once you get bedding packed in there it stays pretty warm,” said Arlen Frey. The ranch expects about 300 calves through April.

The Bruner Angus ranch near Drake began calving its 400 cows in late February and expects to be busy with newborns until May.

Travis Bruner said the cold weather has meant checking on cows every hour and half day and night to ensure those nearing birth are herded into calving pens in the barn.

“They can have the calf in a barn by themselves in good bedding and straw,” he said. “It’s just too much of a shock when we have the below zero temperatures for them to be expected to survive outside on their own.”

Calving can happen fast, though, and if it does and a calf is born outdoors, the Bruners use a large sled to tote the animal to the barn with the cow following.

“The biggest thing with the cold weather is the amount of energy that the animal needs to just maintain,” Bruner said. He estimated cows eat 25 percent more on the extremely cold days than on a normal North Dakota winter day when temperatures might reach 15 to 20 degrees.

With proper feeding and bedding, though, the animals do well.

“They really do quite well considering the conditions that they’re expected to survive, as long as we’re doing our part and giving them the extra feed and bedding that they need when those temperatures are extreme like that,” Bruner said.

Warmer days have their own issues because it can bring moisture that contributes to sickness, he said. On the other hand, cold can be managed, and once calves come through their first 12 to 24 hours healthy, they generally are good to go, even testing the outdoors.

“They’re pretty tough,” Bruner said. “They are pretty amazing really. It is quite impressive that they do as well as they do.”

Frey said birthing can be the easy part. The risk is afterwards as they watch the calves initially for any problems or sickness. Cold generally isn’t a concern.

“They are in the barn, and they are pretty well protected,” he said. “We have it set up where they can go outside, but when it’s this cold, they don’t go out much.”

The Freys calve early to have bulls with more age and size for their production sale each February. Both the Freys and Bruners know North Dakota winters and have been at this ranching business for many, many years, so the cattle care is routine.

“Those are just things, I guess at our place, that you kind of take for granted,” Bruner said. “It’s usually that January-February time when you do get your cold snaps and so we’re third trimester on our cows at that point prior to calving, and we are just kind of ready for it – prepared for that extra feed and bedding when the time is needed.

“So it really is nothing new,” he added. “There’s always things you can get better at, and every year we do seem to maybe make one adjustment or improvement, so you do get better, year after year. Nothing is ever perfect but I would say, yes, we are really very prepared and ready.”


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