Historic second April blizzard brings stress and moisture
If April showers bring May flowers, April blizzards bring sleepless nights, and (we pray) grass.
Jamie Guttormson of Velva, North Dakota, said north central North Dakota has been dealing with severe drought conditions for almost two years now.
Much of Tri-State Livestock News readership area experienced historic, back to back April blizzards, complete with blinding snow, 50-60 mph plus wind and freezing temperatures. Rain, thunderstorms and more snow are all in the forecast for April 29-May 1, 2022 for much of that same area – the western Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, as well as Nebraska.
“I would say that first blizzard (April 12-14) was a walk in the park compared to the rain and snow in the second storm,” Guttormson said.
In the second storm, (April 22-24) which was an all-out blizzard in Western North and South Dakota and eastern Montana, Guttormson said his area got about 1.5 inches of rain and about 3-4 inches of snow, which had not melted off as of publication time. His sister-in-law and brother-in-law further west near Ross, North Dakota, received about 1.5 inches of rain and about 20 inches of snow, he said, making conditions even more difficult to traverse and keep calves alive.
“We start calving around April 15. We aren’t set up for big storms,” said Guttormson, who created makeshift calf shelters out of hay trailers and has used up at least 100 corn stover bales to bed cows and calves – trying to provide a dry place in all the mud.
Guttormson, who raises registered Fleckvieh Simmentals as well as commercial cattle, said he has dealt with higher death losses from the second storm than the first. “The sad part about this is we won’t see the aftermath until at least two weeks from now. That will give us a more accurate death toll, as well as what hasn’t mothered up, what didn’t get sucked,” he said.
He worries about pneumonia and other sickness in his older calves, too.
Guttormson lost a few cows in the storm – all livestock was particularly stressed with this being the second storm in two weeks.
“Most of these young calves haven’t seen sunshine until yesterday (April 26). Today the sun’s shining,” he said. But during and after the rain and snow, he found calves, newborns and older calves, stretched out flat, chilled down that had to be tended to. “At one time, we had eight calves in my mom and dad’s entry and some in the bathtub,” he said.
Guttormson said normally his cows calve in deep coulees that offer natural protection.
Even in the snow, they calved in those areas until they were completely flooded. “Those cows will make a nest and make the snow hard enough that if they are a good mother they can get that calf on their feet and going,” he said.
The first blizzard saw Guttormson and his business partner, as well as his dad and his wife, working together to set up portable corrals so that they could gather up a cow if she was having trouble and take her to the barn. “It was a blizzard. The wind blew, it was cold, I buried our 6165 M front wheel assist. We about lost our barn. We spent the morning shoveling snow off our barn to save it.” Easter morning brought additional snow to the area which stressed the clearspan barn so much that Guttormson worked until 5 am shoring up the building with extra lumber. “I bet I didn’t sleep half an hour, maybe 45 minutes. I woke up and it was snowing and blowing and away we went again,” he said. He believes at least 36 inches of snow fell in the first blizzard, but the wind blew hard enough that the tops of the hills were bare and the south side were deep with drifts.
Much further south and west, Jeff Boardman of Weston, Wyoming, was in the heart of calving when the second storm hit. “I thought I was so genius, moving my calving date to April,” he jokes.
Boardman does calve his heifers early, so they were done and “kicked out” to pasture. Pairing up heifers and their calves after the second storm was a challenge, he said. “You’d find them laid down in sage brush, and kick them up and take them back to mom.” The Power River breaks and the brush growing on the ground offer good wind protection, said Boardman.
The storm certainly took the lives of some calves, but some that arrived during the blizzard survived. “I think there were a lot born during the storm that made it. Everyone complains about sage brush, but I think that might have saved my bacon,” he said.
“They say we’re still in a severe drought. I don’t know how they figure that. I’m sure we are still in a drought but right now I’m sinking in everywhere I go horseback, that’s a good feeling. It looked like western Kansas here last winter, we had dirt blowing, it was horrible.”
Fourth grade student Tessla Stevenson of Buffalo Springs, North Dakota, spent the blizzard weekend helping her grandparents Gary and YoLanda Martian calve about 55 miles south, near Reva, South Dakota. With their road snowed in over the weekend, she even got an extra day on the ranch.
“I went down Friday night and came back Tuesday about 11 o’clock,” she said.
“I went down there because they needed extra help because they knew a storm was coming and they knew they would need to bring calves in and rub them down and put them in hot boxes.”
Tessla, who spends a lot of time helping her grandparents and aunt and uncle during the summer but has never spent several days helping during calving, didn’t bring her own horse but borrowed her uncle Brady’s for the weekend. “I rode Popeye. He’s a very good horse. We rode out to bring in moms for the bum calves,” she explained.
“When we got down to the ranch, some of the days we checked in snowbanks for airholes to see if there were calves. We brought in new calves that were cold. We rubbed them down with towels and stuff. One was so muddy, we had to give him a bath because we couldn’t see his face,” she said.
“One day my cousin and I went to the east pen, it was flooded in there, like a big lake. We dug a trench and let all the water out. Then we rode to the winter pasture. We had to put pairs in that weren’t paired up very good. We had to bring them in to pair them up.”
The ranch work was tiring, but she loved it. “I was exhausted. I thought I was going to fall asleep in school on Tuesday. We had to stay up until about 10:30 at night to check the heifers. If they were calving we put them in a pen, then we had to feed the bum calves about two pints,” she said.
Tessla said she learned a lot and was very thankful she could help her family. “Even if you don’t want to go out and do something, if you don’t want to stay up until 10:00 to check, you have to, or the calves will die.” She also learned that, “Even if you don’t want to go riding because it’s cold out, you have to because the calves won’t find their moms.”
“I was really glad I was there because my grandma thanked me a lot for the help and I know they needed the help. I asked mom if I could go back this weekend but she said they are only getting a lot of rain this weekend,” said Tessla.
In addition to grandma’s accolades, the meals helped make the hard work worthwhile. “One time grandma made mashed potatoes and meatballs. That was really good. One night after supper, she let us have root beer floats,” remembers Tessla.
The positive return for ranchers is often not in financial form.
“We had an inch and a half of rain and I think 12-16 inches of snow. It’s damn sure wet. I don’t like the death loss but I’ll take it,” Boardman said, sharing his gratitude for much-needed moisture. His heart is with Nebraska friends fighting fire while he slogs through the mud.
Meanwhile, Guttormson is concerned for friends and neighbors. With large amounts of moisture in a short period of time, and little sunshine to dry things up, the mud is a challenge. “They call this weather historic for a reason. It’s something that doesn’t normally happen,” he said. “This does not end the drought yet. Ask me again in mid-July,” he said.
The after-affects of the storm are far from over. Guttormson is losing 2-3 calves per day to sickness and estimates he seen a 10-12 percent death loss in his calves.
The USDA LIP program offers minimal per-calf payments for documented losses but Guttormson said improved livestock policy would be his preferred solution. “I don’t need a $160 handout from the government for a dead calf. I need true price discovery in this feeder cattle market so we can survive these train wrecks without government intervention,” he said.
He points out that with colder than usual temperatures – still almost complete snow cover in his area – the grass will be slower to start, meaning more expensive hay must be fed.
“I’ve got friends – they had enough hay to try to get to May 15 and now it’s terrible, they will have to go out and buy $300/ton hay. That grass is going to come but right now we need sunshine and time.” Guttormson points out that he himself can’t feed his cows the higher quality silage through his mixer wagon right now due to muddy and snowy conditions, so the lower quality hay he’s feeding is taking a toll on their body condition.
“The elephant in the room is the mental stress, the financial stress. You start piling up dead calves, that brings mental stress. There are some guys not doing so good,” he said. “It’s tough, especially when there is no dry ground. It’s wet everywhere. I know guys they go out every morning and there are dead calves. It’s not like they are sitting in the house, they are doing everything they can. Mother nature is a bear,” he said.
“You’ve got to reach out and talk to people. You’ve got to talk, you’ve got to have faith, and you have to believe in God. Yesterday I called one of my neighbors and we stopped for a second and had a little prayer over the phone.”
North Dakota Farmers Union offers support to stressed farmers and ranchers.
Go here for information https://ndfu.org/farm-stress/
Or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255
Or for an emergency, call 911.
Or for First Link Helpline, call 211. FirstLink is a free, confidential service available to anyone 24/7/365 for listening and support, referrals to resources/help and crisis intervention. FirstLink answers the 211 help line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and communicates via Text line 898-211. FirstLink provides these services across the entire state of North Dakota and parts of Minnesota. Dial 2-1-1 or text your zipcode to 898-211 from anywhere in our service area for confidential help and support.
South Dakota farmers and ranchers may qualify for free mental health services. Find out more:
* To access Agriculture Behavioral Health Vouchers, producers and their immediate family members can call 2-1-1, the Avera Farm and Rural Stress Health Hotline (1-800-691-4336), or Andrea Bjornestad, SDSU Extension Mental Health Specialist.
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