Wiechmann: Diary of an April Blizzard II
Editor’s note: See the April 16, 2022, edition of Tri-State Livestock News for Ruth’s first diary entry.
Tuesday, April 14. By now it is nine o’clock or so but I have no idea of the time because I’ve been outside in the snow and wind for so long. I didn’t put my phone in my pocket before I left the house because I knew I wouldn’t be taking off a glove to fish it out and use it in the snow anyways. The wind is howling and whirling and driving the fast falling snow, but for now the area by the barn where the cows and calves are standing is relatively calm. The wet snow is sticking to them, but the pairs are finding each other and everyone is settling in.
I go to the house for a minute to check on the girls and check the time—the power is back on! Thank you, Grand Electric linemen!
Tuesday, April 14, 2022. 10 a.m.
We set sorghum bales by the windbreak. The cows will eat and the calves will have something to snuggle down in to rest. 904 is looking for her calf, but I’m sure she will find him. I recall seeing them together at four when I brought 617’s calf to the barn.
The saddle horses are snug in their spot behind the hill in the south pasture. The colts in the corral are wet and snow is sticking in the shaggy winter coats that they are trying to shed off. They’re a mess but they have hay to eat and they will be fine. Doc and his mares are at their hay in the corner of the east lot by the garden. These four are all 20 years old and more, so they get some TLC. The snow is already piling up but I carry them their alfalfa cubes. No need for them to walk out into the wind to go all the way to their usual feed bunk. They whinny their greetings and enjoy their extra breakfast.
I’m ready for a break. It’s time to go in the house, put some more chunks of ash wood in the stove, and find my own breakfast!
Tuesday, April 14, 2022. 1 p.m.
Ben has gone again to the neighbors’ where he is working. I pull on wool pants and coat, find a dry pair of gloves, and trudge up the hill to the corral. Everyone is content except for 904. She’s still bawling and her bag is tight.
“Where’s your baby hiding?” I ask her.
I look carefully through the cattle, reading tag numbers of calves. I’m not seeing him either. She comes around again, bellering at me.
Did I miss him out in the south pasture this morning? I don’t think so, but it is hard to say. It was impossible to see very far.
I recall again seeing him with her when I was bringing 617’s calf in. The impression is clear. They were together, paired up, and I clearly saw his tag number. She wasn’t over in the west corner where the calves had drifted through the fence. It wouldn’t make sense that I had missed him when I got those calves back. She was in the east corner, right by the corral gate.
She was in the east corner….. What if he went through the fence there?
I can barely see, but I walk to the spot where I last saw the pair together and turn south. If he went through the fence here, the wind would have pushed him directly over the hill. The snowbanks are already deep. If he hunkered down on the hillside he might be buried. I trudge over the hill. The wind is pushing me.
In the swirl of snow, I see a dark shape all the way at the bottom of the hill by the fence. Sure enough, there he is!
I head down the hill after him. Will he be weak? Will we need to sled him back up? This hill is steep and I know I can’t pull the calf sled up it alone. The drifts are more than knee deep in places already.
Poor baby is chilly and hungry but still quite spunky. He tries to jump through the fence when I grab him, but I hang on and turn his face into the wind and up the hill. Together we make the climb. He only needs help in the deep spots. His mama sees us crest the hill and calls loudly to him. He answers. She is right there at the gate when I sneak him through, and he finds her warm udder with the milk he needs.
Tuesday, April 14, 2022, 3 p.m.
Time for another check. The ritual of wool pants, boots, sweatshirt, scarf, coat, hat, tie hood, another scarf is done without thinking. I go for the driest pair of gloves on the wood stove and fight my way to the corral again. The cows are huddled in bunches, cleaning up the sorghum bales from their morning feed. 608 has a very fresh calf on the remains of one of the bales, about 15 feet from the barn door. Smart cow. It’s as good a spot as can be found, but I grab the calf’s slippery, slimy leg and drag him into the barn. She comes right along and gets busy licking him as I shut the gate behind her. There is dry straw here for him. He’ll be on his feet in no time.
Tuesday, April 14, 2022. 5 p.m.
Ben is back, and we put good grass bales into the hay feeders in the corral. No one else is calving, thankfully. We have the youngest pairs in the barn, and those calves are warm and dry. 608’s baby has sucked and she has him all licked off and dried out. The bottle calves are content in their pen. A handful of sparrows are scratching in the straw in the back of the barn, feathers all fluffed out, safe and warm and finding a meal.
Time to feed the wood stove, warm some soup and feed my family.
Ben and I trade off night checks: I go out at midnight, he checks at two, I check at four, he checks at six. No one calves overnight. The hill is getting deeper and the trudging harder, the wind fiercer and the snow hurts when my face is turned into the wind.
“Just keep those babies inside till this is over,” I tell the cows as I walk through them.
Wednesday, April 15, 2022. Morning.
I am so proud of my girls. The snow is deep and the wind is bitter, yet they are uncomplainingly marching out into the blizzard to do their chores. Rosi milks her cow and is pitching hay into the wind. The sheep and chickens and dogs and bottle calves are all well cared for, and I don’t have to worry about them.
Ben and I are concerned about more of the youngest calves. The wind is yawing more westerly than it did yesterday. He carries a windbreak panel into the corral to set just off the corner of the barn. We hope that will help. We push five of the youngest babies into a pen in the barn. They just don’t have the body mass or stamina to tolerate the snow and wind. Their coats are completely solid with snow. In the barn they can thaw out, and I can sneak them out to their mothers or slip them half a bottle of milk when they get hungry. It’s not ideal, but our little barn is just not big enough for so many pairs. Keeping them alive is the most important thing right now.
Ice hangs from the cows and calves’ ears. Their sides and backs are plastered white with snow and ice. The cows huddle together, sharing their body heat. Calves hunker down wherever they can. Every check I pay attention to whether they are finding their mamas to nurse. The wind is fierce and relentless. Visibility is next to zero. I cannot see the saddle horses from the corral, and I hope they are still in their spot and able to find their hay as the snow is piling up. Doc and his mares are nowhere to be seen either. I hope they have gone down the hill to the windbreak but I can’t see that far from the yard. The drifts are getting too deep to open or shut gates in the corral, and we question the road. Ben needs to get back to the neighbors’ place to help with their cows. He decided to drive the tractor out to the highway to scope things out.
When he returned, he reported that the road wasn’t actually drifting too bad, so he was headed for Johnsons. He could see Doc and the mares up on the hill east of the trees. Thankful for alfalfa cubes, so much easier to pack around in a blizzard than a forkful of hay, I take them some breakfast, and then sit down to my own.
The phone rang. It’s our neighbor just down the hill. Her tractor is refusing to shift into forward gear. Would I be able to come down to feed their cows?
I put on all the layers, my heavier coat this time, my chopper mittens, an extra wool scarf. Start the tractor and head down the hill. I can see the road—if I lift the tractor bucket up a little. There are moments when I can see in front of the tractor and moments when everything is white. The REA poles are shadows beside the road. But I make it.
“We’ll put out two bales now,” my neighbor says, “And can you put out another one about five o’clock tonight?”
I don’t know what five o’clock will bring. It seems wise when they decide to have me feed all three bales right away. Now I have to be careful what direction I am parked when I open the tractor door. The heater works in the cab, which is a lovely thing, but the snow melts on the windows and that doesn’t help my vision at all. But with my eye on the gravel, I make it home again.
I check on the cows. No one is calving. Praise God. The wind is more or less straight from the west. The cattle have hardly any shelter, and my heart hurts for them. The cows will be ok, but it is the littlest calves that get pushed to the edge of the bunch and end up bearing the brunt of the wind.
But what can I do? I briefly consider opening the gate to let them into the yard, but the wind is coming right over the hill and the snow has piled up. They would not be any better off.
Back in the house, I sit down to write a journal entry. My windows are white, with snow sticking in the screens, snow blowing past, snow everywhere in the background. I can see the corral gate, the storm is not as bad as our 2016 Christmas blizzard. The snow is deep, but not as deep as it was during ‘Atlas,’ the October blizzard of 2013. We will get through it… But will the livestock losses mount like they did in the April blizzard of ’97? The cattle are weary. I am weary. It’s not even close to over yet. How will those calvessssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss
I jerk awake. Time to check again. The cold wind wakes me up quickly when I step out the door.
A calf is lying down near the barn door, away from his mother and the other cows. I rub his back to encourage him to get up, and he jumps up and takes off at a run, with a strange beller, straight for the corner, nowhere near the cows. What was that about? I shoo him back in the direction of the herd, walk through the cattle again, checking carefully on the calves.
Then it hits me. A chill not of the storm runs through my stomach. The babies’ eyes have a layer of ice formed over them. I reach down and lay a mittened hand over a calf’s eye to melt the ice off. I have read about this in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, but in all the blizzards I have lived through, I have not seen it. Until today.
Oh, dear God…
On this hill, there is nothing, nothing, that will slow the wind, take the brunt of its force, stay the relentless driving snow. Tears mingle with the melting ice dripping from my own eyelashes.
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