White outs, Black outs
February 2021 will go down in history for record cold across most of the United States; the extreme cold was compounded by snow, ice and the massive power grid failure in Texas causing widespread blackouts across the central US.
Kristian Rennert of Rennert Ranch Charolais in Elm Creek, Nebraska was in the middle of calving and hosted their annual bull sale on February 15th. “We had one or two little blackouts on the 16th, had the power gone out during the sale it would have been devastating, we sold 60 percent of our bulls online.”
The Rennerts were calving their heifers and started the AI cows during the cold snap. “We don’t have a big calving barn, just open sheds, and windbreaks. As cold as it was, we had to get every calf in, warmed up, fed and back to the cow. We lost a few that we didn’t get to in time,” Rennert said. “We probably carried fifty or sixty calves into the shop, got them warm and dry and out they went. Due to the cold stress it seems there are more instances of malpresention in calving and cows not milking very well. The extreme cold stress caused a lot of indirect problems, getting stuck in snow drifts, gelling up the equipment.”
The Muleshoe Ranch in Gail, Texas was particularly hard hit, due to them coming into this winter after two years of devastating drought their herds weren’t in good enough shape to withstand the extreme cold. They had even split their herd and sent part to pasture in Oklahoma. John Andersen has spent his life on and running the Muleshoe. “We came into this winter in worse shape than I ever have. I’ve seen it that cold but not for that many consecutive days and nights. Minus fourteen, fifteen wind chills. Back in the mid-eighties, I remember chopping ice for about three weeks. When we chop ice it’s on the dirt tanks, there are no water troughs except around headquarters.”
The Muleshoe headquarters lost electricity and the water froze up, they had to set up a generator and were able to eventually get everything thawed. “It was just a train wreck with our electrical grid system. Anderson lives in a town with a co-op power supplier and he never lost power. But the headquarters has another provider: out of ten cold days, seven of them were without electricity. They were able to set up a generator and get their water thawed eventually but had been hauling water for their stock. “My family started this ranch in 1913, and we have never heard of conditions like this. Just not set up for it, we spent a ton of money on protein and hay. We never feed hay.”
Anderson feels very fortunate that he was able to obtain some hay even though it came at a high price. A few friends insisted that he let them help him and they were able to send a few truckloads his way from eastern Texas. “We were going all day every day, we ran out of cake, all the stores ran out of cake.”
With the natural gas being needed for the electric system, feedlots and feed companies had their supplies cut off as they were deemed non-essential putting ranchers and feeders in a bind trying to find protein for their herds.
The Muleshoe lost over fifty cows and still don’t know how many calves. A number fell through the ice on dirt tanks and others couldn’t withstand the extreme cold. “We have been supplementing the mares, two colts came early but they look alright. The cattle in Oklahoma that are calving, I don’t know yet on the death loss there,” Anderson said.
Many ranchers are able to pencil out the high cost of summer pasture by sending their cows to winter on corn stalks, which is a very economical way of stretching hay and feed. Most of these cows start coming home shortly before calving. One Nebraska Sandhills producer sent his cows to corn stalks for the winter and had already brought part of the herd home, with the rest waiting until the weather cleared. The landowner felt sorry for the cows during the arctic blast and let them in among a bunch of trees, unfortunately a few of the trees were pine. The cows had protein tubs, and were fed hay and cake but not every day. So they apparently were foraging among the trees. By the time he started clearing away the snow to get the trucks in, he started finding dead premature calves. The pine needles caused the cows to abort the calves about two week early.
When he discovered an issue, seven had already lost their calves. This was on Sunday, the next morning there were six more dead calves but one was still alive. After the cows came home the rancher had about five more premature calves over the following two weeks. Working around the clock, tubing and keeping some in the house for a while they managed to save three of them. The cows that lost calves didn’t clean and two are still sick. With many producers in the region needing orphan calves, baby calves have been hard to come by. “We bought calves and put on some of the cows. They wanted a baby. We started calving today, March 10th, those cows would have probably been going now.”
With many producers starting to calve, the forecast for this weekend of a major winter storm is causing PTSD as we remember March of 2019 and a winter storm called Ulmer that struck on the 13th and 14th. Leaving a horrible wake of dead stock, washed out bridges and flooded property.
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the June 19, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News