Winter’s Wrath: Ranchers deal with cold while helping newborns survive

With at least two more winter storms in the coming week’s forecast, ranchers are bracing for the worst, but looking ahead to sunshiny days and healthy calves.

South Dakota State University’s climatologist Laura Edwards said South Dakota and Nebraska should be prepared for a storm tonight (March 8) that could drop around 10 to 12 inches of snow. She expects southwest, central and eastern South Dakota, along with Nebraska to bear the brunt of this storm.

“The snow will be a little wetter than what we’ve seen up to this point because temperatures are supposed to be in the 20s,” she said. But Edwards said the snow will still be light enough to blow. “On Sunday, as we often see with these weather patterns, the wind will come after the snow.” Winds could gust 40 to 50 miles per hour, she said.

Edwards expects yet another storm in the region to settle in about Tuesday, March 12. “It looks like Nebraska, especially southern Nebraska might get more of that severe weather,” she said. But she predicts a significant amount of moisture in that system that will probably drop snow on much of South Dakota as well.

An “active weather pattern” in the next 10 days looks to be holding strong over much of the Dakotas and Nebraska, while Wyoming and Montana are actually looking to be in more of a dry pattern, she said.

The longer term outlook for the middle of March looks to be cooler than average, said Edwards. “There is kind of a bullseye over South Dakota and Nebraska, so we’re pretty confident that it will be colder than average for at least two more weeks and probably longer,” she said.

It is tough to predict temperatures or moisture as she looks further into spring, especially past March, said Edwards.

“There are not a lot of clear signals,” she said. “For the three month window of March/April/May there are equal chances of warmer or cooler than average temperatures,” she said.

Battling the frigid temperatures for months at a time is nothing new to Matt Kline at Kline Simmental Ranch near Hurdsfield, North Dakota, in the central part of the state.

The family started calving heifers on Valentine’s Day and their cows have been dropping calves since about Feb. 24.

“We like to get calving out of the way before we get full of mud in the spring,” said Kline.

Because they sell yearling bulls in February, the family – Matt and his wife Emily, their three children and his folks Monty and Terri, like to calve early to give the bulls time to grow and mature for their customers.

February this year was brutal, and so far March hasn’t been a significant improvement, but the Klines are set up to handle the weather.

“We try to put as many in the new barn as we can, it stays the warmest,” said Kline, explaining that the most recent building has sunlight panels on the roof, with drip stop coating on the inside. The temperature in that barn is generally 10-20 degrees higher than outdoors, he said.

Kline said the cows are generally left in a group inside the barn to calve, and the new mothers with calves are penned up immediately. “Once they are a day old and nursing well, we move them to another barn for a couple of days, then they go outside.”

Calf shelters and huts with windbreak and plenty of straw help keep the calves and cows safe when turned outside into the elements.

Jim and Robyn Goddard of Prairie City, South Dakota are calving through the chill, as well. They like to calve their heifers in March so they can focus on the cows in April.

“Every one of the heifers goes through the barn,” said Jim, explaining that they are set up to calve that way, knowing how March in South Dakota can be. The cows calve in a pasture setting unless the weather is nasty, then they, too, get to see the inside of the calving barn.

The Goddards bring heifers into the barn when they are showing signs that they’ll calve soon. They leave the heifers to calve on their own in the middle of the barn, then move pairs into pens as they calve. After the calf is licked off and has sucked, they will put the calf in a warming box to dry if the weather is really tough. Then the calf is reunited with it’s mother and after it has nursed again, the pair usually heads outside to a pasture with a shed.

The back third of the shed in the pasture is partitioned off with a fence that allows calves but not cows to enter. The Goddards bed the calf area with straw, or on particularly nasty days and nights, they bed the entire thing.

“As soon as the weather gets nice, we run them out of the shed,” Goddard said, explaining that he doesn’t completely lock them out of the shed for the first few days, until they get familiar with it. But as soon as they are used to going in and out, he locks them out of it on nice days to keep it clean.

Goddard has been putting off tagging as long as possible, in an effort to keep from losing tags with frozen ears.

Kline said they often wrap calves’ ears with self-sticking wrap or “vet wrap,” flat down to the calf’s neck, then wrap over top with duct tape. They remove the wrap after about 24 hours.

The colder than normal weather means the Klines are going through their straw quickly and have more stresses to worry about like keeping water open and keeping snow moved to make room for cattle in pens.

Goddard said the addition of a camera in the barn has helped with his workload. “Now, if I’ve got a heifer thinking about it, I’m not running in the barn and disturbing her every half hour. Often I can check the camera, see that she’s had the calf, and leave them alone as long as she’s taking care of it.”

Goddard said that because his heifers always calve this time of year, he just plans on bad weather, but he has considered moving his calving date.

“More and more people are going to April and May. I’m a firm believer that if those calves never have a bad day – they don’t get sick or have to deal with a storm when they are fresh – they are more likely to be healthy the rest of their lives,” he said.

Kline said his family won’t change their calving date.

“Healthwise, the calves are doing really well. It has been cold and miserable but I kind of prefer this to the mud,” he said.

Flooding, especially in the eastern Dakotas and Nebraska will be the next concern once the weather warms up, said Edwards.

According to the National Weather Service, the areas with the greatest threat for flooding are the entire James River in South Dakota, the Big Sioux River from Brookings downstream, the Rock River below Luverne, the entire Little Sioux River and the upper Redwood River.

Additional future rain/snow and the speed of snowmelt will be the biggest factors in the severity of the flooding this spring, said the National Weather Service.

The National Weather Service indicated that February did not break any records for cold temperatures, but was in the top 5 in many cases. 1936 was a much colder year, with an average February temperature of about -12 to -15F in much of North Dakota, while the 2019 average was around 0 to -4F. Still, in many places, only two or three years had colder average temperatures (including 1936) for February.