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Diary of an April blizzard part III: The Longest Night

Wednesday, April 15, 2022. 3 p.m.

By Ruth Wiechmann for Tri-State Livestock News

Outdoors is a howling whiteness. Snow scuttles past the chopping block, axe and wood pile. The east door of the house has snow piled against it. The ash trees at the garden are mere shadows as their gray branches whip and bend in the wind. I cannot see the school section gate straight south of the house, and I get no glimpses of the road running down the hill. The corral gate is visible, with ice covered calves huddled just inside trying to stay on the leeward side of their ice crusted mothers. The snow is headed east at fifty miles per hour, running with the wind. It’s hard to tell if more is falling from the sky or if this is snow that fell somewhere in Montana and is now making a rapid journey east. I am glad that we put my neighbor’s extra bale in this morning. I don’t think I could make it the half mile to their place in this storm now, not even with the tractor.

Ben calls from Johnsons to check on things here. No one is calving. I have gotten some of the babies we put in the barn this morning out to nurse and back in to shelter and rest again. He wants to be here to help with the checking, but I tell him that if he can’t see the road he’d better stay where he is. I have already heard reports of vehicles stuck and I know that roads are closed all over the area because they are impassable. If he gets stuck or goes in the ditch I cannot come pull him out. Not even with the front wheel assist. I dare not leave the girls alone.

The thought of going through the coming night alone is terrifying, but not more so than the knowledge that the risk was too great. Even if we lost a calf, or several calves, putting human lives at peril is not worth it.



Wednesday, April 15, 2022. 5 p.m.

I pull up my wool pants, literally, and my ‘big girl britches’ (figuratively), screw up my courage, and go out again. I start the tractor and grab a sorghum bale to set just south of the east hay feeder, hoping it will cut the wind just enough for those calves that keep getting bumped out of the warmth of the group of cows. I pull some hay off the bale for them to lie down on and they promptly take advantage. Their little bodies look more like wooly sheep than black Angus, with the balls of ice covering their coats. The saddle horses are trying to make the best of their situation, lined up at the very end of the shelter belt. They have no feed there, though, so I navigate my way to the stackyard to retrieve some hay for them and to feed all the pairs in the barn. I can’t see the stack from the gate and I have to swallow panic again.



One thing at a time, one step at a time, I tell myself. Just do what you can.

It doesn’t seem like enough. That one bale to break the wind for the calves… The horses are grateful for the hay but I have my doubts on whether they will get it eaten before it either blows away or is buried by the drifting snow. But they will do their best too, and paw through the drifts to get it if they have to. It is a relief to pull the tractor back into the shop and shut it off.

It is most definitely time to consider a move to New Zealand…

The west alley behind the barn is a whirling wind tunnel. Some cows stand in the corner of the west pen, with a drift growing in front of them. Their faces are masked with snow, their tails are hanging strands of icicles, their backs and sides are caked almost solid with ice. I peer under them, blinking the snow out of my eyes to make sure that no one has dropped a calf.

Even the barn is filling up with snow as the wind whirls it in the south door and sifts it through every crack and crevice and old nail hole in the tin. I run water in the barn for the cows to drink, and I see a section of roof that has daylight showing between it and the top of the wall. The wind buzzes and rattles it, trying to pry it loose. If it should blow off….

But I won’t think about that possibility. I add ‘Please don’t let the barn roof blow off’ to my prayer of ‘Please don’t let anyone calve’ and walk through the cows again. They are huddled in a tight knot as close to the windbreak as they can stand. I peer under legs and around heads. I notice a heifer getting to her feet, which is unusual as I haven’t seen any of them lie down all day.

Is she calving? She goes to the feeder and starts eating, but she’s switching her tail. I will have to check her again soon. The light is dimming but the wind and snow have not slowed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2022. 5 p.m.

Time to make supper. I have thawed a package of venison bratwurst for a treat, and we make mashed potatoes and salad to go with it. I will need all the calories I can hold tonight.

I check again before we eat, straining to see under the cows’ legs to determine if that heifer has laid down to calve. I almost missed her, even though I was looking for her. But sure enough, my flashlight hits something shiny; she has the calf’s feet showing. We eat, and I go out again. Baby has arrived, born in the middle of the bunch of cows, shaking her head and wondering what she’s doing in this cold, snowy world after the warmth of her life in the womb. The heifer is still lying down, exhausted from the storm and the birth. There’s too much snow in the barn, and she’s not ready to walk anywhere. The calf will have to come to the house for the night.

I wrangle her slippery, slimy body into the calf sled and drag her out the gate and down the hill. We park the sled by the woodstove, thaw colostrum, and wipe her off with rags and towels. She is a big, strong, healthy calf, eager to suck a bottle and she wants to stand. She will be fine.

These adventures have taken some time. It’s ten thirty and time to get the girls to bed. I am praying that I waken to my alarm through the night. I shine my flashlight into the wind and driving snow and walk up the hill again, peering under the cows’ bellies as they crowd together, not wanting to disturb the mob but hoping and praying that if someone drops a calf I’ll see it.

I set my alarm for midnight and lie down on the couch. I don’t trust myself in my bed, I need to be somewhere less comfortable so I awaken more easily. I drift off….. and then, beep, beep, beep, beep! I am awake again.

12 a.m.

1:30 a.m.

3 a.m.

4:30 a.m.

6 a.m.

I shut the alarm off, pull on my outdoor clothing, walk up to the corral. The cows are simply enduring at this point. Conditions are theoretically going to improve after daylight but I am skeptical. Will this never end? Calves, exhausted, lie with necks outstretched downwind of the sorghum bale. Are they going to survive this? Do I need to put them in the barn? Would that even help them at this point? I kneel beside one to check on him, and to my surprise when I touch him he tries to jump up and I have to grab him and hold on to get my fingers into his mouth to check his body temperature. His mouth is nice and warm.

He will be ok.

I check another calf, and his mouth, too, is warm.

How can they survive this? I feel guilty, knowing that I will go back into the house, and have a moments’ wild thought of curling up beside the hay bale to weather the storm with them.

Two calves have managed to climb into the other hay feeder, snuggling down on the downwind side of the half eaten bale. They look so tired and cold but they are in as cozy a spot as can be found right now. Even in the barn there is snow and the wind is whirling.

So passes the night.

Get dressed, fight the wind and snow, look at cows, check calves to make sure they are not chilling down, look at cows, undress, feed the wood stove, lie down for an hour, and do it again. At one point, the saddle horses appear at the west corral gate in a flurry of feet and icy manes and whirling snow. My heart breaks because I can’t let them in. They are coming to me for help and I can’t do anything.

It will be better in the morning, I promise them, hoping that I can believe the same thing. It seems that this wind and snow and this bitter battle for survival will never end. But with each hour, the night that seemed so long draws closer and closer to dawn.

Thursday, April 16, 2022.

The night is finally over.

The sun is coming up and there is clear sky above the snow that is still flying past. The wind speed may not have dropped much but things do look better in the daylight. Calves find a warm udder and suck, mostly on their own mothers. The benefits of the herd are apparent as the cows’ sides are black and wet from the warmth of standing together even though their backs are still icy and white. The saddle horses are digging through the snow and eating their hay. The cows are starting to go to the hay feeders again. I can see the gate onto the school section now, and catch a vision of my neighbors’ place and the gravel road between us through the fog of white.

We have survived.

The sunshine melts the ice off of the calves. As each hour passes the wind drops a little and the temperature rises a little, and the livestock look a little better. Will the calves all get sick now from this stress? We’ll deal with that if we have to. For now, they are all alive and I am thankful. They were so miserable through the storm, but now that I can see the west lot where the calf shelters are, I see that it is drifted full of snow. If they had stayed where we intended them to be the calves would have been buried in the drifts. It is a sobering thought.

Perhaps what seemed like the worst place for them was actually the best place after all. We made it through. It will take some time to dig our way out of the snowbanks, and I know that even if we escaped without severe losses, others likely did not, and my heart aches for the ranchers who will find dead calves under the snow, for the cows that lost their babies and the calves that lost their mothers in areas where the storm was worse. We guess that we had fifteen inches of snow, but some places in North Dakota are reporting 24 and 36 inches. Meadowlarks flutter around the hay bales and one lands on a cow’s back. They are disoriented by the storm too… And then I see the flutter of gold in the snow. But these feathers are only stirring in the wind; she will never fly again.

There are tears for what has been lost.

We are exhausted, but we have survived.

Postscript: Before this was published, we experienced a second blizzard—for us, not as fierce or as lengthy as the first, but for many in western North Dakota, equally severe or worse. I have hear reports of ranchers losing fifteen, twenty, thirty-five calves between the two storms. Of exhausted cows lying down and giving up. Of exhausted teenagers feeling that all their efforts were in vain as they helped pull yet another dead calf out of the snow. These may or may not have been the ‘worst’ spring blizzards on record, but for various reasons—wind speed, wind direction, rain preceding snow with the second storm, they have taken a toll on humans, livestock and wildlife alike. The moisture is a blessing desperately needed by ranchers across so many states that have suffered from extended drought. It is a severe mercy.

But now the water is running, the crested wheat is greening up, the meadowlarks, robins, doves, blackbirds and killdeer are all singing. The calves come running across the pasture when I rollout hay to their mothers. Spring is slowly gaining ground.

Ruth Wiechmann

April blizzard. Carrie Stadheim
for Tri-State Livestock News

 


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