By Sarah Pridgeon
This year’s seemingly continuous snow and ice are bringing back issues for local ranchers that were less common during the recent run of mild winters. Calf mortality appears to be up this year due to the cold and the stresses involved with inclement weather.
“I think it’s more than normal because we’ve had such mild winters for about four years and I think a lot of us have almost forgotten what a real winter is like,” says Warren Crawford, Crook County Veterinary Service.
“We’ve had ice and snow, though probably not record amounts of anything, including cold, but it has certainly been severe enough that it has claimed some calves born in less than ideal conditions – at night or in some of these little storms.”
Speaking just before the wind and snow whipped up on Monday afternoon, he noted that even at the beginning of April it was a day, “very capable of killing calves that aren’t born in ideal conditions.”
“I don’t know that there’s anything record-setting or totally out of the ordinary about it, but I think we’ve had some stressful weather conditions that have been unlike what we’ve had for several years,” he continues.
“I don’t know yet of any enormous losses and we haven’t had any terrible blizzards, just a series of weather fronts that have been certainly a risk to the calving situation.”
The same has been true for most of northeast Wyoming, says Steve Paisley, Wyoming State Beef Extension Specialist.
“I’ve certainly heard the same thing around Sheridan, Arvada and parts of Gillette,” he says. “It seems to be mainly the northeast corner – the rest of the state hasn’t been quite as severe.”
The issue has mainly to do with moisture, says Blake Hauptman, NE Area Extension Educator. While cattle bred in this area are adapted to colder weather thanks to their heavy winter coats, wet conditions are a different story.
According to Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University Extension Beef Feedlot Management Associate, that adaption goes out the window in wet conditions and the risk of hypothermia heightens considerably, which leads to increased calf mortality.
A second problem specific to this area has also been cropping up this winter. Pine needle abortion occurs when cows consume the needles from ponderosa pine at a specific time during their pregnancy.
“People are very aware that it happens, living here in the Black Hills,” says Hauptman.
Hauptman is researching the issue and is hoping to put together an informational session for ranchers. The trouble is, he says, there’s not much data to work with.
“It’s a challenging issue when we have winters like this. We don’t really know totally what drives them to consume pine needles, but blizzards can drive them into the trees and they eat pine needles and, at a certain stage of their pregnancy, they can abort their calves or it causes them to have their calves early and they are born weak.”
It’s something that has been around forever and likely will always be here, Crawford says.
“It’s a known fact that the pine needles have a higher sugar content in colder weather and certainly the cattle are more prone to eat them when weather conditions are worse,” he explains.
“That’s not to say you don’t have pine needle abortion in some of the milder years but it’s more common in the colder weather, I believe.”
It’s specific to this area because ponderosa pine is the only species that causes it, Crawford adds, so it only affects a few states in the western part of the United States. There’s really not much doing anything about it aside from fencing cattle away from the trees.
“The only permanent, true solution to pine needle abortion is to prevent the cows from eating the pine needles,” he says.
“It helps if they’re fed large amounts of hay to prevent them from going to the pine trees, but none of it is completely foolproof. If they can get to them, they’ll eat a few.”
On the relatively brighter side, the weather outlook appears to show temperatures climbing back to normal ranges for April next week.
About 2:30 a.m. on March 27, with snow falling and the temperature at ten degrees, and a foot of snow on top of the foot of mud in the calving pasture, Mary Yemington found a calf flat, but not quite dead, and its mother bawling and licking with no success.
“There was no choice but to bring it in to warm it, but it was a big calf, too heavy for me to lift to the tailgate, so I shook my stick at the cow and lifted the front end of the calf onto the driver’s side floorboard, where I could hold it in with my foot as we drove,” she says.
“Then I lifted the rear end and shoved so that the calf’s head flattened the gas pedal. And the Gator and calf took off at a decent rate of speed until the calf slid halfway out and they stopped.”
Wow, she said – or something very like it.
“Not thinking with my usual speed of light, maybe because of the cold or the hour or a general lack of sleep, I repeated the procedure and sure enough was again left behind with the snorting and pawing cow, who was luckily distracted from her resentment of my interference by her calf’s being so good at driving a vehicle,” she continues.
“Well, third time’s the charm: when I caught up, I put the shifter in neutral position, found my stick, smacked the cow, loaded the calf one more time and drove to the house.”
Husband Bob Yemington woke as she arrived and came to help dry the calf by the woodstove with the “high tech hair dryer method and low tech towels,” she says. By sunrise, cow and calf were reunited and all was right with the world (unless, she says, you count the snow and the mud).