Fair Range: The Imperfect Storm
Editor’s Note: Sydney Glasoe Caraballo is a fifth-generation rancher and farmer who manages Glasoe Angus near Wildrose. Her Fair Range column appears monthly in The Journal and Tioga Tribune.
I nudge several calves awake from a late afternoon nap in the straw. I’m checking for regular breathing, bright eyes, perked ears, and manure piles that smell and look normal. Our calves have just weathered two April blizzards mere days apart, and some may become sick due to stress.
I pull off a glove and jot down a calf’s ear tag number. She executes a normal-colored but loose bowel movement in front of me. She squirts, then dashes off to head-butt a peer; she will be treated with medication to prevent further diarrhea and worry.
A warning flashes across my I-phone screen. Caution: Blizzard Warning. I tap my WeatherMate app.
Snow Amounts Around 20 Inches Possible Over Far Western North Dakota From Beach to Williston to Crosby . . . Winds Could Gust As High As 65 Mph.
I confirm with the five other weather apps on my smart phone.
This third blizzard will begin as rain, transition to ice and transform to snow. It will snap hundreds of electric poles and leave thousands without power – some projections until May’s end. When the storm hits and our generator quits, I will curse and cry as I shovel out an eight-foot-high, thirty-foot-long drift to provide a path to water for my dozen bred cows left to calf while I mutter desperate prayers that fog my ski goggles and ask God to assist my husband as he rigs our battery charger to the industrial generator to supply the electricity that will run water to our three other stock tanks that our son, Wyatt, is plowing toward while operating our skid steer and attached snow blower. (A technician arrives several days later to correct their wiring error and restores our generator and peace of mind).
But before this third storm hits and temporarily gets the best of my temper, I slug through the slop and snow toward another set of pairs and remind myself that we are lucky. All winter we have prayed for moisture because we are in extreme drought. We are nearly done calving our 100 cows and heifers. We have overhead shelter for our pairs and bulls we are feeding for our buyers. We have plenty of feed and straw onsite. Our two hard-working hired hands will help us prepare, and our teenage kids will be on hand to help us during the blizzard. We haven’t lost a single calf. We are lucky; others prepared just as diligently, worked harder and slept less than us. But we didn’t get the sheer force of wind and snow that others battled. The blessings of moisture arrived in a devastating fashion for many area livestock producers.
Ranches south of us experienced winds as high as 50 mph with more than two feet of snow: the definition of a calf-killing blizzard. Phone calls with friends, news reports and social media photos and videos document their efforts to save newborn calves. Ranchers maneuvered four-wheel drive tractors with spotlights and front-end loaders through near zero visibility to buck snow and create paths to water and food for their cattle. Cowboys and cowgirls on horseback traversed drifts taller than the horse with calves slung across their saddles. Family members carried white-covered calves in their arms and hiked through the swirling storm to shelter and heat while cows huddled together near shelter belts and corral fences as melting flakes iced their ears and tails.
I witness the ingenuity and hustle – ice houses and stock trailers with space heaters converted to calf-warming sheds. Master bathroom tubs filled with warm water to incubate chilled newborns. Equipment storage buildings emptied and bedded down with straw for laboring dams and fresh calves.
Sleep comes only an hour or so at a time for many. Schools close; ranch kids work night shifts alongside moms and dads. Grandmas and grandpas shake off any retirement notions and take turns to re-bed shelters, haul feed, plow snow, tend to sick calves and grill a hot meal – no electricity needed – for the work force. Emergency preparation began days before. Recovery efforts last weeks past each storm.
Some ranches calve in May and June to avoid blizzards like this, but many commercial producers choose April calving for multiple reasons that make sense on the average. April is typically a mild month; the last severe blizzard to hit this area was in May 2011. April coordinates well with seasonal workloads. April calving is the result of ideal breeding season conditions from late June through July when pasture nutrition, grazing supply and temperatures foster the best fertility, libido, conception rates and corresponding long-term calf health and development.
The cowboy adage is that it takes a calf-killing blizzard to break a drought. We move from D3 to D2 drought. As the snow drifts disappear, calf losses pile up. An insurance agent tells our N.D. Angus Association board that one ranch reported 500 calf deaths. Insurance and the Livestock Indemnity Program will help. There is still financial loss. There is emotional loss. Burdens ranchers still carry after the last saved calf has left their arms and been returned to its mother.
As I walk amongst sleeping calves stretched out and soaking up the sun in our north pasture the last day of April, I hope that as the temperatures rise, every rancher’s spirit will lift. A Colossal Anne heifer calf, whose sire I named Storm, sniffs my hand, shakes her head and dashes off toward her mother.