Ranchers to the south move snow to save cattle and count deads after a late spring blizzard claims cows, calves
May 4, 2017
A late spring storm swept across Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, breaking and bending tender wheat crops to the ground and scattering and blanketing herds of cattle. Nearly a week after the storm, many remain without power and the search for cattle continues in earnest by land and air.
Near Norton, Kan., Charlotte Stephenson of Babcock Angus said the storm tested the mettle of ranchers, once again. The Babcock and Stephenson families have been without electricity since April 30 and it's not expected to be returned until May 5. While this may be an inconvenience for a household, it's a serious challenge for a cattle operation. No electricity means hauling water from other sources to thirsty cattle through mud and snow drifts.
In southeastern Colorado near Walsh, snowfall was difficult to measure given the high winds but Chad Cook, the rancher behind Bridle Bit Simmentals, estimates 14 to 30 inches with formidable drifts. 2007 marked the last major snowstorm for the area.
"It was terrible," he said. "You couldn't see 10 feet in front of you. I think the wind blew harder this time (than in 2007). It may end up killing more cattle than 10 years ago."
Jeff Trahern ranches southeast of Pritchett and was preparing to move cattle away from the home place that is protected with canyons, trees, and a new cattle barn that has served Trahern well.
"We were on the verge of taking some cows out to the government pasture which is flat as a pancake," Trahern said. "We hadn't done that yet so most of our cows were in a good spot."
Trahern and his wife, Robin, are still calving heifers near their home, a place he said serves them well in the wintertime that he credits with saving his cows. The couple even found five calves that had sought shelter near a haystack and were insulated in the snow that covered them. After several hours of digging, they were able to save the calves.
His younger brother, Chase, however didn't fare as well. Chase Trahern, a young cattleman, lives east of Walsh and thought he had wrapped up his first year wintering cattle with few problems. He estimates his losses at 20 head of mother cows but is still attempting to locate cattle.
"We didn't lose too many calves but it's pretty hard on those calves to lose their mamas," he said. "We had cattle scattered for about 10 miles south of where they were supposed to be."
A creek runs through Trahern's ranch and it remains completely full of snow, 10-12 feet deep across.
"It looked level and they probably thought they could walk across there," he said. "There's one pile of five head piled on top of each other there in the creek."
As with his neighbors, Trahern struggled to traverse the drifts. The first few days after the storm were spent horseback until the tractor could even be used. Ever optimistic and looking ahead, Trahern now looks at the green grass just to the side of the still snow packed creek and is making plans to run a few yearlings to recoup the cow losses from the storm.
Austin Schroder, Campo, Colo., has been out for several days helping locate cattle. Schroder has documented much of the impact with photos on his phone of not only losses but of cattle found completely buried alive. Some of those cattle were dug out with loaders and man power and returned home. He anticipates those efforts will last well into next week.
Cattle were scattered for miles by high winds and many cattlemen are relying on aircraft to help locate cattle as mud and remaining drifts have left many areas still impassable even five days after the snow ceased. A number of Facebook groups have been established allowing ranchers to post information about cattle both lost and found. Many photos on the sites are brands drawn on paper with the location of the brand, in hopes cattle might be found alive.
"We're blessed," Cook said. "We had our sale a month and a half ago and we still have bulls waiting to go to the country. We're fortunate and didn't lose any to death but we had a bunch of cows synchronized and we missed that."
Cook's nearest neighbors were not so lucky. The Cooks have located several groups of neighbors' cattle in groups of 30-50 lying dead in creek bottoms, pastures, and even where they lay after passing through Cook's cattle, moving with the wind. Losses to this herd could reach as high as 40 percent loss.
"It's just a luck deal," he said. "There's a little management- nutrition and things like that- but it's mostly luck and where the creeks are and where the railroad tracks are and where the drifts were bad. It's tough."
Cook said management of cattle as the storm bear down upon ranchers was a proverbial shot in the dark. Some cattle in pens with shelter weathered fine while others were covered and killed. The conventional wisdom is to allow cattle to move with the storm to avoid piling and suffocation and some cattle out in the open did well while others perished. This lack of control and death loss is not only financially crippling but also heartbreaking for families who have made their living as ranchers and caretakers for generations.
Whitewood, South Dakota cattle feeder and Superior representative Ted Thompson said he often has cattle on feed in that region but he "dodged a bullet" this time around.
Thompson said cattle futures has been moving up for a couple of months, but that they moved even faster after the weekend blizzard that pounded the core of cattle feeding country.
"They lost a lot of (feedlot) cattle. That would make the market rally pretty hard," he said. Thompson explained that if the packers lose captive supply, it immediately affects the market. "The market was already rallying pretty good. Then you drop available supply back, that will affect the market for a while anyway." Thompson said that in addition to death loss, shrink and weight loss affect supply, too.
"The market should stay up for a little while, anyway. To get the cattle, they had to pay up."
"It's just been tough in this country the last few years," Cook said said. "These guys just can't catch a break. The wheat looked so good. We had two and a half inches of rain a few weeks ago and the wheat perked up and grew. It looks like, right now, what's nor broken off and laying over probably froze. Who knows what the wheat crop is going to do."
The cattle, Cook said, are the immediate loss even as ranchers continue the search from ground and air. Farmers will have to wait, something not unfamiliar to the agriculture industry, to determine crop losses. The Colorado Farm Bureau Disaster Relief Fund has again been activated.
While both live and dead cattle are still being located and tallied, every sector of the cattle industry took a serious hit. Baby calves and mother cows have been lost and since the storm blew through the heart of cattle feeding country, cattle feeders will deal with death losses, sickness, weight loss, and other challenges in the days and weeks ahead.
"It's a feast or famine deal," Cook said of agriculture in southeastern Colorado.