Iowa Public Television

 

Ranchers Slog Through Snowy, Chilly Spring

posted on May 1, 2009


CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- Snowy, soggy, chilly weather has taken a severe toll on sheep and cattle across the northern Great Plains this spring.

The nastiness began in mid-March, abruptly ending a spell of warm weather. A storm that began as heavy rain quickly turned into a blizzard that dumped more than two feet of snow in places.

The worst was yet to come. Two more blizzards roared through over the next two weeks - part of a cold, wet pattern that added up to just about the worst weather possible for spring calving and lambing.

And the foul weather continues. Six to 8 inches of snow fell on much of the region last weekend. Cold rain was forecast for much of the rest of the week.

"Pretty tough weather for this time of year here," said Jw Nuckolls, a sheep rancher just outside Devils Tower National Monument.

Nuckolls lost 190 ewes out of 800 in the first blizzard a month ago. He almost lost his barn when the wooden roof beams began to split under the weight of 6 feet of snow. He shored them up from below and enlisted five high school kids to start shoveling on the roof.

"Real severe. Three blizzards kind of back to back there, not much in between, and we've got 6 inches of snow on the ground today," Nuckolls said Monday.

A few miles up the road in Hulett, snow and mud have been the talk of Chip Neiman's customers at Tower Valley Ag Supply, where blizzard No. 1 crumpled the roof of an old steel building.

"When that storm hit us at the end of March, most of these guys were in the throes of calving," Neiman said. "They didn't find calves. There are still calves they're getting to."

Calving season always is a busy time on a ranch. Rough weather makes calving that much busier: Ranchers need to hustle to find struggling newborns and get them into a barn to warm up.

"You'd like to be there right when it's happening, and certainly with the first hour or two," said Gene Gade, a University of Wyoming extension educator in Sundance. "Sometimes that's not possible. These storms are at night or whatever and that's when a lot of the losses occur."

Almost worse, though, is the mud that follows any substantial spring snow. Snow and mud cause cattle to cluster close together. The animals get unusually dirty and vulnerable to a diarrhea-causing bacterial infection called scours.

Neiman said he's been hearing a lot about scours lately.

"That comes from just too much moisture, too compressed together and no place they can get that's on clean, dry ground," he said.

No one knows how many calves and lambs were lost in the snow. Many, no doubt, remain buried.

In North Dakota, state and federal officials estimate that 91,000 cattle have died following record snowfall and flooding. That includes 72,000 calves with calving season only about 80 percent finished.

Outside Belle Fourche, S.D., just east of the Wyoming line, rancher Chris Crago was optimistic she didn't lose too many calves. But she said she wouldn't know for sure until all the snow melts in the draws.

"We have a pretty good head count," she said. "The cows were weary after that many storms. Even though we were taking care of them best we could, there were a few days we couldn't even get to them."

A new program in last year's farm bill that will be administered by the Farm Service Agency might soon enable ranchers to be compensated for annual livestock losses above 5 percent of their herd.

Many ranchers in the Belle Fourche area have had losses above 10 percent and could be eligible for compensation, according to Keith Jensen, executive director of the local Farm Service Agency office.

In Powder River County, Mont., rancher and Montana State University extension agent Mary Rumph said documenting losses is easier said than done.

Lost livestock is only one headache for ranchers when snow piles up, she said. They constantly have to beat down paths through the snow so cattle can get to water tanks and hay. They have to shovel snow just to open and close gates.

Rumph said it's the worst springtime she's seen in 25 years in ranching.

"It's not been the kind of spring you want to be in the cow-calf business," she said.


Tags: agriculture cattle farmers news snow weather