There was still a slick of fluid on the black calf’s forehead, as Dean Becker scooped it up from the cold concrete and guided it 20 yards to the nearest straw bed.
The animal was shivering, having followed its mother to the feed yard only to settle on the coldest spot possible while the cow ate. The calf's young legs noodled as the Ballantine rancher set it on all fours and took a cautious step back. Within seconds, the youngster had firmed up and then its mother bolted over to see what the matter was.
“He was born yesterday. He was up and his mom was taking care of him. He was looking good,” Becker said, confident that a little straw and lot of mom would perk up the calf.
February hasn’t been kind to newborn Montana calves. In south-central Montana, there have been sub-zero temperatures for at least part of every day for 10 days, making this the eighth coldest February since 1934, according to the National Weather Service. The cold advisory for newborn livestock starts out extreme most days and in the coldest parts of Montana stays there like the busted red needle on a dial thermometer.
In northeastern Montana, February is on track to be the second coldest on record, according to NWS. In Glasgow the temperature had been at or below zero for more than eight days. When the frozen fever broke on Tuesday, the high was 4 degrees. In tiny Opheim, 10 miles from the Canadian border, weather observers reported a low of minus 50.
Becker was making sure every one of his animals started the day with a warm breakfast as the temperature rose to zero shortly after 9 a.m.
A cow can tolerate temperatures down to 18 degrees with no adjustment, but colder temperatures require more food and warm enough water to help digestion. Becker keeps his water tubs heated so his animals aren't iced out of fresh water.
With his red heeler Cody in tow, the Becker drove his International feed truck between two shrinking mountains, one silage, one hay. With a tractor, he began dumping feed, one cubic yard at a time, into the truck bed.
The warm steam curled from the silage with every bite from tractor bucket. Inside the pile, anaerobic activity had driven up the temperature to about 65 degrees.
A feed truck is no ordinary piece of equipment. It’s part haul truck, part mix master, with four trundling augers in the bed chewing fermented silage and hay into a meal smelling of rancid butter and the final traces of chlorophyll from a summer long ended.
Becker’s cows eat from a long wooden trough on the farm side of a feeding yard. The rancher drives the 40-yard length of the trough in reverse, watching a weight gauge as the feed falls from a chute in the side of the truck bed.
The cows reach the trough by poking their heads between the slats of a steel fence. They form a chow line and bury their noses in the trough, rarely coming up for air until the feed is nearly gone. The calves are pushed aside as the moms eat.
“Right now, they’re getting 55 to 65 pounds of feed a day. They’re in good shape,” Becker said. It’s enough calories to stay warm without surrendering pounds to the cold, enough to make milk for the ranch’s increasing population of calves.
After three different feed runs, Becker hops out of the truck to hand mix a couple tubs of food for his daughter’s 4-H cattle. It’s the silage and the hay plus a cocktail of feed corn and performance enhancing nutrients guaranteed to fill out a show animal’s flanks and shoulders. Cody sneaks over to a lime-green tub to nibble at the putrid concoction as Becker mixes.
This is the routine, feed in morning, straw for sleeping, punctuated by calves birthed usually in the middle of the night. It’s cold enough that animals born outside can freeze to death in a matter of minutes if they aren't licked dry and quickly fed.
These are temperatures that can freeze an animal’s ears off. And even though ears don’t make a difference when the steaks are cut, no one pays full price for an earless steer.
But these calves are doing well, Becker said. “In 15 minutes, they’re up and looking for milk, even when it’s cold out.”
He parks the feed truck in the garage, followed by the tractor, then shuts the door on the cold morning, knowing he's one day closer to March.