Spring calving in April storms

The sun is shining this morning after another really tough weekend of weather. A storm rolled in on Friday that started with rain, turned to ice and then into over a foot of more snow blowing sideways in up to 65 MPH winds throughout Saturday and into Sunday afternoon. This one was just as hard or harder on our herd because, number one, wet and freezing weather is tough tough tough on livestock, especially newborn calves. Number two, we are full-on calving now, and number three, we lost power on Saturday around 3:30 pm and didn’t get it back until around 6:30 pm on Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, right before we lost power, the guys pulled four soaked, shaking and newborn calves in from the storm to save them and our entryway turned into a bovine nursery, complete with all four little girls helping to dry them, warm them and get them to eat if we could.

My sister sat with the newest calf on her lap, scrubbing him with towels, drying him, and asking him to hang in there. We tried the last ditch resort of tubing electrolytes, but he didn’t make it another 20 minutes. The girls were heartbroken and so we sat on the steps a while, working it out with them as they wiped tears and I worried that he might not be the only one in our entryway with such a fate.

My sister and I hang on to memories like this one of being kids during calving season. The excitement of bringing the calves inside always held with it a bit of anxiety knowing that they were there with us because something wasn’t going right. So that’s the lesson I tried to give the girls, that nature can be cruel, and we’re there to be caretakers, doing the best we can. But sometimes it doesn’t work. And so we move on to the next thing we can do. I don’t think they’re too young to learn about life and death and how to care for helpless things. It’s not too early to learn how fragile it can all be and what a big job it is to be responsible for these animals.

I don’t want to be dramatic, but my sister and I cried a bit too about that calf. We were hoping for a victory, we’ve seen calves come back from similar situations, but it was a tough day to be born. So we focused our attention on tiny #4, the one the girls named Strawberry, who wouldn’t stand up or take a drink. The next morning, after a fair amount of patience, I finally got her to drink an entire bottle. This morning she was bawling for it and I got my victory there. Funny how you can be so proud of a calf. The guys loaded all three of those calves into the backseat of the pickup to graduate them to the barn and that right there is why everything we own out here is covered in some amount of poop.

Today the guys are counting the calves and pairing them with the cows who get mixed up during stressful times like this. When we woke up on Sunday morning all of us were a little unsure of what we’d find down in the trees, but these cattle are tough, and so are their babies and as soon as the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, there were calves running and bucking and perking right up. I can’t believe it. Nature is cruel, but instinct and being bred for heartiness plays a part in the equation and those two things didn’t disappoint us in our herd. Neither did the natural protection of the trees and all of the family around us helping take care.

Anyway, there’s so much to reflect on, and so many lessons my husband and I have learned about how we could be better prepared for next time, and so we put that in our pockets and in our plans and keep digging out. Under these snowbanks is green green grass and we’re lucky to have them honestly. Some ranchers further west would certainly pay a price for this kind of moisture.

Below is last week’s column on how we dug out from the last blizzard, unaware what was still lurking in those clouds!!

Spring calving and April blizzards

The epic April blizzard during Easter weekend dumped at least 20 inches of snow on the hills and valleys of the ranch. 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 hadn’t “officially” begun to calve, but we had three early babies on the ground when the snow started falling in sideways sheets, inch upon inch creeping up as a dramatic drift outside our living room door. We measured our daughters against it, and soon they couldn’t compete, marveling at how the snow almost topped our doorway, blocking out the view and any chance to get to the grill for a spring cookout.

So many families across the state were doing the same thing, pressing their faces against the window and wondering if it was ever going to stop, likely worrying about something out there.

Here we were worrying about our livestock and hoping the momma cows would hold on to their babies just a few more days, the way we planned. My dad and husband took to a routine of going out together, one in each tractor, to move whatever snow was possible around in the protection of the trees, to check on the animals and to bring hay for feed and bedding during the storm.

There were times the men couldn’t see a foot in front of the tractor and it was dangerous even with the good equipment, but they had equipment and so they were thankful. It would have felt impossible for my dad all those years ago when he was on his own with the 1970s 1086 International. These days we have three families living at the ranch, which makes tackling the brunt of these things a little more bearable in lessening the load and, maybe equally important, keeping company.

The storm was particularly bad on that Wednesday evening and didn’t let up much for us on Thursday when my dad’s impeccable timing found him out checking the herd just as a momma was pushing a calf into the world. Had he been a little earlier or a little later, he might have missed the chance to load all 80-some pounds of baby bovine into the cab of the tractor and bring him inside for a chance to dry off, warm up and get a better start at life.

I made a spot in our entryway for the calf to spend the night and the girls gave him the welcome he deserved, helping me scrub him down with dry towels and taking it a few steps further (of course) by changing into their cowgirl outfits, wrapping him up in a quilt, laying down next to him and naming him Kevin.

And this is why every rancher, in my opinion, needs a daughter, even though it’s hard to explain to them that the goal is not for that calf to stay in the house with us forever.

No, it’s always the goal to get him back to his momma, and that’s what we did the next morning after filling him full of milk-replacer and getting him up to take a few laps around the mudroom among our boots, coveralls, backpacks, vet supplies, sunglasses and, of course, a doll or two. So perfectly out of place, that baby.

The next day, the sky cleared and the sun shone and across the state the doors flew open on houses where the kids were cooped up and they got busy building snow forts and snowmen under a confusing sun that seemed too warm for only 20 degrees and stayed up too long for winter. The bigger ranch kids helped dig out and keep watch and feed and ride along… what time was it anyway? What day?

We made our way to dig my little sister’s family out of the 8-foot drift over her house and the one surrounding her new chicken coop and we lingered around the kitchen island, drinking coffee and saying things like, “Isn’t this just crazy?”

And then it was Easter and it was snowing again, so I made caramel rolls and ham and roast and beans and we took our time making a bunny cake and skipped the fancy dresses, keeping close to home as more snow fell and more momma cows threatened to give birth.

We’re in the full swing of it now, baby calves born into a white, slushy spring, and we will have our hands full in the next few weeks keeping them out of those melty snowbanks. I just talked to my husband and it sounds like we have another baby bovine house guest warming up and drying off. He’s hopeful he can save him.

Today, the sun is shining and the wind is blowing the hilltops clear for the deer and the turkeys, the horses and the cattle. When it’s warmed up enough to melt the drifts, we’ll climb up there and poke around for wildflowers and green grass, but it looks like it might storm again at the end of the week so we’ll take it day by day, grateful for the moisture, but worried anyway.

And this is ranching in North Dakota. This is spring…

8 thoughts on “Spring calving in April storms

  1. Hey! Man, as if the weather by itself isn’t enough then, the power goes out? WOW! You guys are tough as nails and the way you are raising those girls, they will be too. Keep up the great work, all of you.

  2. My heart goes out to you all, we depend on all our Ranchers. Thank you for sharing this journey. Praying for your better days, praying for spring and all your coming needs!

  3. What you have endured is beyond my imagination — thus, I cannot say, “i know fear and frustrations and struggles. — YOU FOLKS are the “real time” story of the cowboy/rancher — heart and soul fully vested in the “lifestyle” — your strength and tenacity is inspiring — the fragile nature of life you taught your daughters we should all embrace
    may the winds carry strength to your Soul
    My bet is that Jesse Veeder will one day write the song — consequent of this battle of survival

  4. God given resilience and “heart”! Mine goes out to you! You saved many!!
    Bless you all for never giving up!! 🙂

  5. We never had to bring any calves in, but we did lose a few to this or that and it always stung. The sight of the healthy young calves bucking and playing made the loss a little easier, until the next time. Just the natural ebb and flow of life on a farm with animals.

  6.  Oh, Jesse, I love your column! I grew up back there in one of the small towns. My Dad raised cattle, among many other endeavors. Your calf struggles reminded me of the time Dad raced home (into town) with newborn twin calves, and called to my mother to bring out some eggs. He quickly grabbed the eggs, holding tight on the calves’ heads, and strongly forced eggs down their throats. I thought he was being SO MEAN. But after keeping them in the house for a while, they started responding. Little did I know how valuable those calves were.

    Another time, in the dead of winter, we received a call that a herd of our cattle had broken through the fence at a corral about a mile away and was headed straight into town. (Smart cattle?) It was 20 below zero. Yes! My two younger siblings, ages 10 and 12, I was 14, had to walk out almost a mile through snow above our knees and herd them to our barn, another half mile east of there. I was always scared to death of cattle, but in bitter weather with animals you do what you must do, as you well know.

    We called those times “character builders”. I love that your family lives near one another to love, share and help one another. Your little girls are precious.

    – Long time Fan

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