Ranchers count up losses to weather

2009-04-24T00:00:00Z Ranchers count up losses to weatherLORNA THACKERAY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
April 24, 2009 12:00 am  • 

The dead are still being counted and the sick still being doctored in Carter and Powder River counties as more cold, wet weather bears down.

Losses of newborn livestock in three lethal snowstorms in the middle of calving and lambing season will be in the thousands for the counties in Montana's southeastern corner.

If each calf is worth $600 when it's sold in the fall, the loss could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Mike Riley, Farm Service Agency executive director for Powder River County, said Thursday that 152 producers had reported the loss of 1,759 calves and cows and 501 lambs and sheep. Of the producers reporting losses, 28 could not give him a number.

Reports will probably be coming in through next week, he said.

His counterpart in Carter County, Ronelia Parry, said Thursday she's heard from about 120 producers so far. She doesn't have the total number of animals yet, but has had heard from ranchers who've lost as many as 40 to 80 calves.

"It's going to be in the thousands," she said.

David Wolff, who runs about 360 cattle on his ranch 17 miles south of Ekalaka, estimates his calf losses at 13 to 15 percent.

"We don't have a full count. We never will," he said. "I know there were animals that went down the creek."

Wolff lives near Highway 323 on Box Elder Creek. When snow piled several feet high melted, the creek spread out across his pastures and would have flooded his house had he not pushed up dikes around it.

"We kept the house and shop dry," he said. "I've never seen this much water."

The first blizzard roared into southeastern Montana March 23, dropping 18 to 36 inches of snow and blowing into drifts that buried machinery and animals. It closed highways, county roads and country lanes, stranding motorists and closing schools.

"We had a swing set that looked like it was 2 feet tall," said Kathy Kittelmann, who ranches four miles south of Ekalaka.

Six days later, another storm dropped a foot or two more. Temperatures between storms had not been warm enough to melt away the earlier snow, so the new snow fell on top of an icy crust.

Then temperatures began to drop again as March came to a close. A third blizzard barreled in, bringing in another foot of ill-timed snow on April 3.

"There was just so much snow, the calves suffocated under the drifts," Wolff said. "If a calf did not get up right away, he was pretty much down for the count."

"Everybody lost five or 10 calves. We've heard as high as 75 from one producer," Carter-Fallon County Extension Agent Nico Cantalupo said. "We're not going to know until all the snow melts and the water recedes."

"I'm afraid we're going to find 30 or 40 calves piled up when the snow drifts melt," he said.

In the economics of ranching, the losses may have just begun. Cows and calves stressed by wet and cold weather are more susceptible to illness.

"We're still seeing the effects," said Mary Rumph, a rancher and Powder River County extension agent. "We've been treating for scours (diarrhea), pneumonia and diphtheria."

The first calf is hard on 2-year-old heifers under ordinary circumstances, Rumph said. It's a brutal business out in sustained cold, wind and snow.

After branding calves last Sunday, Rumph found that the babies that survived the storm were in good shape, but their mothers showed strain.

"The cows are thinner than I've ever seen," she said.

Normally, the cows are bred again in June. Rumph worries that they may not be ready by then to support another breeding season.

"I think we are going to see the effects of this this time next year," she said. "We're going to see a lot of open 3-year-olds."

An open cow is a cow not carrying a calf - not earning her keep.

Then there are heifers who lost calves to this year's storms. They are often difficult to breed again in the spring, Cantalupo said.

"It may not be feasible to keep her," he explained. And her value may be diminished if she's put up for sale.

A lot of ranchers will probably also be making hard decisions on whether to keep or sell cows that lost calves, he said.

"When she loses her calf, all summer long she is grazing for nothing," he said.

Cantalupo said grazing fees for animals on leased land is about $21 per month. She would be grazing about five months and eating hay during the winter.

In addition to livestock losses, deep, heavy snow downed miles and miles of fence line. Flood waters carried away fence, posts and all, in the hardest hit parts of the county.

"I can look out my front window and see half a mile to a mile of fence down," Wolff said.

Posts and wire can often be reset, but some will have to be replaced. That may be the least of the cost.

"But more so is the cost in time," Cantalupo said.

"You could probably hire someone to build fence all summer," Rumph said.

Like ranchers across the state, they have also had the expense of feeding cattle since the first snow fell in the middle of October. Grass is just now greening up, she said.

"One good thing is coming out of this," Rumph noted. "There's going to be a lot of hay for next winter."

Wolff has found a bright side, too.

"We were really fortunate because our losses were with the calves," he said. "We've still got the factory. We can catch right back up."

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