I wrote this column last week as a big April snow storm was brewing and preparing to dump almost 20 inches of snow on the hills and valleys of the ranch. Today was the first trip I took to town since Tuesday. The moisture was much needed, but this storm was one for the record books bringing with it whipping winds, blinding snow and drifts up to10 feet tall in some places. We had just begun to calve, with three on the ground and one that we know of born in the blizzard. The guys took both tractors out to check and bring hay for feed and bedding during the storm, a task that wouldn’t have been possible without the adequate equipment. This little calf was lucky dad caught him being born as there was nothing the momma could do to dry him off. So I made a spot in our entryway for the calf to spend the night and the girls scrubbed him down with dry towels, wrapped him up and named him Kevin. Luckily we were able to bring him back to his mom the next morning and all looks well.
Easter Sunday was quiet and we entertained the family living here on the ranch with caramel rolls and ham and roast and beans and a bunny cake, keeping close to home as more snow fell and more momma cows threatened to give birth.
We’re in the full swing of calving as of last night. Three more born in the trees on the hay, surrounded by cliffs of snow. What a difference that extra time made for us, as some of our neighbors had a completely different storm experience, working tirelessly to save calf after calf dropped in a storm like we haven’t seen for years.
And today the sun is shining and we made it to school, although we were a little late of course. It looks like it might storm again at the end of the week and this is ranching in North Dakota. This is spring…
A spring storm during the height of calving season
As I type this column, the snow is whipping sideways outside of the windows and across the Plains. It’s mid-April and we’ve just started calving, three calves on the ground and the rest safe and sound in their mommas’ bellies as we feed extra hay in a low and protected spot on the ranch, waiting, watching and wondering how it will all shake out, this wild weather they’re predicting for us.
By the time you read this, we will know how we all fared. We need the moisture desperately, but this is not the ideal time to be born.
A drought is ended by a calf-killing blizzard. It sounds rough, harsh, but this is the part of agriculture, of ranching, of cowboying that isn’t glamorous. They don’t put the cowboy in a Scotch cap and Carhartts digging a half-frozen newborn calf out of a snowbank on the postcards they sell you in the gift shop in Montana. It doesn’t make a beautiful oil painting, but so often out here there’s more to the drama than the lovely sunset.
Without rain, we have no grass. Without grass, we sell the whole herd. Without the herd, the story changes. Dramatically. That doesn’t make a good inspirational quote.
But it’s reality. This spring storm during the height of calving is the definition of gratefulness and fear walking hand in hand with us as we take another loop around the pasture in the feed pickup, unroll another bale, make sure we have the entryway and barn and milk replacer and extra fuel and tractor ready to help fend off the worst of it the best we can.
It’s the story my dad holds like a lump in his throat, the hot summer of scours that took nearly 90% of their calf crop. His father was fresh from a battle with cancer, feeble and shell-shocked, and my parents, they were hanging on to a dream that was literally dying right before their eyes.
In a particularly desperate moment, one where my dad, as a young man, helped his father work on another unresponsive calf, he offered that it might be time to give up. And his dad looked him in the face right then and said plain and stern, unflinching against the despair, “You CAN’T. You CAN’T just give up.”
My dad tells it, still humbled after all these years, and that lump appears in my throat, too. Maybe we were born with it there, waiting to remind us of the weight of the responsibility that grazes on our summer pastures, bunches up together in fence corners against the wind, rides her pony out in the round pen and runs wide open down the scoria road. Maybe we were all born with it there to remind us how fragile it is really, how small we can become in the scheme of it.
My parents, not yet in the middle of their 30s, packed up the little they had in that old trailer house and their two young daughters and left the ranch that summer, not knowing if or how they might ever return, how they might ever make it work. I was just about to turn 2 years old.
That lump, it’s in every rancher and farmer’s throat, or it’s a tightening in her chest, or the thing that wakes him in the early hours of the morning before the birds and the sun. The bad winter. The drought years. The hailstorm that wiped them out. The scours. The day he had to sell it all. The calf-killing storm.
But agriculturalists, we don’t hold the patent on hard times. And the weather, no matter how extreme, it’s never unexpected. We’re never surprised, we know how to batten down the hatches. And we know the stakes.
We keep them tucked up under our hats or in the pocket of our shirt, the one under the jacket and the wool vest and the winter coat, the one closest to the hearts that we carry out into the blinding, whipping wind, knowing when we get through this, the white will make the grass grow greener and that will be something to put on a postcard. That is your inspirational quote.
I grew up on a farm in upstate NY (near Buffalo), so I get it. Spring storms can have the worst timing. If only we could have the same sense of fun and adventure that the kids have when these things happen, right? Too many responsibilities though. Sometimes being an adult isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Hang in there!
Thank you, Jesse, for sharing this snap shot of your real (sometimes easy, sometimes difficult, always caring) life as ranchers in western North Dakota. You are appreciated, and you inspire me! Mary
Be so proud of the fine example you represent of the resilience of ND Ranchers, their livestock and their way of life. Your daughters are getting the incredible upbringing that you both did!!