On Thick Ice: Southern ranchers battle through with extreme cold
Southern states battle through cold snap
Dubbed “snovid” by at least one social media personality, an extreme cold snap that settled into the Southern United States last week tested ranchers, livestock and water pipes.
“We were hit pretty hard, the biggest problem was nobody was prepared for that amount of time below freezing,” Texas rancher Cody Myers said. “We saw eight days of cold but not much snow, it snowed three times and maybe eight inches total. There was more ice in our water troughs than snow on the ground, it was a giant skating rink.”
From Canada to Mexico the continent was plunged in a polar vortex for more than a week, mid-February. With some areas even seeing the mercury plummet to more than 40 degrees below zero. Stockmen and residents in northern plains are used to extreme cold but our southern neighbors seldom see bitter extended cold. They and their stock are able to handle over a hundred degrees but single digits can be deadly. For 34 year old Myers this was the first time he has ever seen the temperature fall below zero on his ranch 65 miles north of Abilene, Texas. “We tried to prep and fed every day for thirteen days, normally we feed three times a week if the weather gets bad. We chopped ice, feed hay and cubes, everything we could do keep those cows warm. We all hustled to try and keep them full and watered.”
Myers lives in Aspermont, one of the few towns that didn’t experience electricity blackouts but the town’s water supply is piped in from another town which did go dark. So while they had lights their water supply line froze solid and broke at every junction. The water supply has been down for close to two weeks with residents boiling trucked in water and longing for a real shower. They do now have a temporary line finished and are hoping to get back to normal soon.
Cody Myers runs his own cows as do his three brothers and they also ranch together with their parents over a wide stretch of country. With spring work kicking off, many ranchers are calving, so many ranchers lost baby calves. One neighbor estimated his death loss at 25 percent of his calf crop. Myers lives in Stonewall County, home to roughly 1,400 people and 9-10,000 head of mother cows. Initial estimates put the county death loss at around 120 head of cattle, mostly baby calves, with some old cows, seven sheep and zero horse deaths reported. Many agree that the death loss would have been in some instances over 50 percent if they hadn’t fed as much as they did and upped the protein content as well. “We went from sub-freezing weather to straw hat weather in a week, on Tuesday it was 82 degrees. The next week will be telling,” Myers said.
Northern Texas ranchers utilize a variety of watering methods, dirt tanks, windmills, submersible pumps and 20 by 20 foot concrete tubs. Breaking ice and hauling water were full time jobs and dealing with frozen and broken wells and pipelines continue to be an issue. Much of southern and west Texas relies almost solely on surface water for their stock so ice has been the biggest problem. Cattle walking out or drifting onto frozen ponds or tanks and falling through has been the largest cause of death. One producer lost seven horses that fell through and another lost seven cows one night to the ice. The impact the weather had on the yearlings out on wheat pasture is still being seen, with the thinner cattle suffering more loss. Rancher Ron Gill from the Arlington, Texas, area, fed extra and his herd did alright. “We are pretty far along in our calving season, I lost one calf that froze. I’m surprised it wasn’t worse than it was. Water has been the biggest issue. Thank God it didn’t last long, it was cold a week before but only bitter cold for three days.”
Gill said almost everyone is dealing with broken pipes and water infrastructure damage. He said the feedlots usually let the waterers run over in cold weather, to keep them from freezing, and have their own backup generators to keep things operating but supplying water has been a big issue. One struggle for the feeders was their supply of natural gas was shut off so they weren’t able to operate their steam flaking systems and had to revert to rolled corn and adjust rations.
Gill appreciated how the independent propane delivery drivers worked relentlessly keeping their customers supplied. “Some people lost electricity for 100 hours and there were sometimes 60-80 cars lined up to fill small bottles of propane. All the bottle exchange racks were empty.”
To the south near Throckmorton, Texas the RA Brown ranch had their water freeze for 48 hours. Donnell and Kelli Brown had 950 head of cattle on feed without water during that time. “Thankfully we feed a high moisture feed -wheat silage and we had great help to help us get a new pump wired in and plumbed in so that we could get water to our cattle,” said Brown.
“We all have a tale to tell on this one! Geez, this storm was a booger bear for all of us Donnell’s portion of the ranch had incredible, unique, challenges due to the size and scope of their seedstock operation! We are much smaller and just have a commercial herd but nonetheless, it was brutal,” said Todd McCartney, Donnell Brown’s brother in law.
“Fortunately, our losses, which could have been extremely high, were heavily mitigated on both our family’s ranches due to the fact that we just didn’t quit ’being with the cattle’ and secondly — by the grace of God. Numerous times, we ended up being at the right place at the right time, to catch another newborn calf chilling down… or seeing a cow crash through the ice. Each time, we knew it wasn’t ’our’ timing that saved the day, but His. We all felt that.
“For all those hardy producers that read your publication up North – our storm really isn’t anything new. But for us, it was just brutal because it was something we couldn’t be prepared for! So many challenges – new challenges to us – that came upon us at one time… and then stayed! As resilient as we profess to be down here in West Texas, this storm was a tough one to stay in the middle of,” McCartney said.
“The good that came out in it was the animal husbandry elevated. A lot of people really beefed up their feed programs, I was really impressed. The feed store ran out of feed and the neighboring towns ran out, just people trying to feed and keep their herds beefed up,” Myers said. “Ranchers have a calling to do this, we make sacrifices to make sure our animals don’t go without.”
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In response to the severe drought conditions in the West and Great Plains, the Agriculture Department this week announced that plans to help cover the cost of transporting feed for livestock that rely on grazing.