Aftermath: Ranchers work through storm challenges and prepare for next one
A little over a week after the “calf killing blizzard” that struck western North Dakota, eastern Montana, northwestern South Dakota and surrounding areas, ranchers find themselves sorting through the wreckage to see how their herd–and the soil–fared.
For many, it was not the saving grace it was hoped to be. Around two feet of snow may have fallen in some places, but the sad truth is that much of it blew away. The wind, relentless as ever, is continuing to cause challenges days after the dumping of snow. The National Weather Service of Rapid City has issued more High Wind Warnings and Wind Advisories this year by April than any of the past 17 years.
Dey and Jen Obrigewitch of Wibaux, Montana are still dealing with the aftermath. This includes everything from doctoring calves for sickness and stress to pairing calves to confused heifers. “We had to take their calves away to save them when they were born, and now they don’t know how to mother them,” she says.
Every factor of the storm was hugely unpredictable. They moved several herds around to find the best protection and placed 330 feet of windbreak panels in one pasture. “According to the forecast, we were going to start with a northeast wind, then it would switch to northwest, so that’s how we set them up. […] It felt like when you’d go out there that it was just swirling. No matter which direction you’d face, that snow was just hitting you in the face. You couldn’t turn your back to it. It was the biggest problem. It was hard to know how much snow we even got. We’re guessing it was somewhere between 18-25 inches,” she says.
Like most, they knew there would be calf loss during the storm, despite their best efforts. Oberigewitch says, “We couldn’t get out to our cows one day. That’s really frustrating, to know that it’s calf-killing weather and we just couldn’t get to them. But we just couldn’t see. Everything looked the same. You couldn’t tell if you were going uphill or downhill. You couldn’t judge where to drive without getting stuck. We were kind of scared of driving around in the tractor, because if that got stuck, we’d be totally screwed. […] Wednesday morning (Apr. 13) trying to get out there, we got the pickup stuck seven times.”
Obrigewitch illustrates just how devastating the wind continues to be: “We have places where it’s drifted so high that we only just found a dead calf in it today (Apr. 20). But driving across the hill path to go out and feed, I was kicking up dust.”
She asks the question many wish they could answer: “Is the moisture worth the number of calves that some people lost? I think it depends on every individual operation. When you’re driving around here looking at dead calves, it looks like not. On the other hand, if you really ran out of grass this summer and you had to sell your whole herd because you can’t feed them, then maybe yes. The uneven distribution is the struggle of it. It isn’t very helpful for the higher spots, where it just blew off. We’re still going to need rain after this, honestly. It might help, but it sure comes at a price.”
Alexis Dynneson, who operates Dynneson Ranch and Feedlot near Sidney, Montana with her family, says that nothing could prepare them for the wind that accompanied the blizzard. “It blew so hard that there were drifts eight to 10 feet high, but there were bare patches on the ground, too. It just made it really cold. It wasn’t that cold out, but with the wind, it just made it miserable. It was hard to feed them and bed them because stuff would just blow away,” she says.
The drought in Sidney has been as bad as anywhere, but the Dynnesons found a way to make good out of bad in preparation for the last storm. “Luckily, we had a long time to prepare. Since we didn’t get wheat or barley crop last year, our quonset was empty. We ended up moving most of our older pairs to that pasture and we bedded our quonset. They bedded in there and sheltered from the storm, which was awesome. Without it, it would have been pretty bad,” she says.
They kept most of the calving cows nearer to home to shelter the calves if necessary. They tended to their cattle day and night, but ultimately, some calves were lost to the blizzard. “We lost a handful–some really young ones that couldn’t get through the cold. We did a lot better than most people,” Dynneson says.
Though Nebraska ranchers did not receive the same snowstorm that their Montana counterparts did, the wind does not seem to discriminate. As Joe VanNewkirk of Oshkosh was doing his phone interview, he was also scooping sand that had accumulated in his parked stock trailer. Moreover, they continually have to scoop sand away from gates in their calving lots to get them open. “The wind was the main problem last week, I bet the wind averaged 60 mph all week. It was kind of a bummer, but at least we didn’t have the snow with it. […] It really reminds me of 2002 and 2012. They were both real windy in the spring, and it kind of forgot to rain on us. It made for an awful long, hot summer,” he says.
The elements are still wreaking havoc with their calf crop this year, though. “This wind is pretty darn hard on calves. They just won’t get up to nurse consistently like they normally do. They only get up once or twice a day to nurse, and every now and then they’ll take too much on and bloat up and have some sort of inner toxemia,” he says. VanNewkirk also states that they are dealing with a large onset of pneumonia in calves, which they suspect is due to the amount of dust and dirt being breathed into their lungs.
Ranchers are trying to maintain positivity, hoping that the moisture in the atmosphere will kickstart a change in the weather pattern. Another winter storm is predicted for Apr. 22-24, with predicted rain, followed by snow in the same areas of eastern Montana, western North and South Dakota, and northeast Wyoming. The moisture is projected to come with severely high winds, and freezing temperatures which means it could once again be very costly to cow-calf operations. “That’s just really hard to swallow,” says Obrigewitch, who is already making preparations for what could be a second devastating blizzard in two weeks.
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