KINSEY — The crash from the calving barn brought Rio’s pointed ears to attention as he watched Doug Martin calmly amble to the front door.
“She’s been at it for a while,” Martin said, peeking through the frosty glass of the roll-up door. “She was showing two hooves this morning.”
It was almost noon. A second crash brought the cowboy and Rio the dog through the barn’s side door, quietly so not to discourage the jet black heifer as she wrestled with the discomfort of labor. The 1,200-pound animal staggered a few steps forward and then, as her rib cage heaved with the panic of imminent labor, the first-time mom crashed her forehead into the crossbars of her steel pen.
Just one hoof emerged and then disappeared. An audience of other first-time moms and newborn Angus calves gazed with indifference at birth’s painful dance.
Martin led his dog outside and shut the door to give the heifer some privacy. It would be the fourth calf to hit the straw-lined floor in less than a day.
The Kinsey rancher had bought 100 heifers the previous fall, all synchronized through artificial insemination to give birth in March, or so Martin was told. The first of the calves had started to drop in the bitter cold of mid-February.
Winter has been relentless this year, ranchers say, with temperatures below minus 30 to just a few degrees above zero for much of February. There have been bitter, windy days when a rancher clearing a two-track road out to pasture has turned around to find himself drifted in.
“Our neighbors have had to haul hay by snowmobile,” said Rebecca Colnar, who ranches near Custer.
It’s been a deep snow winter across Eastern Montana, said Meteorologist Tanja Fransen of the National Weather Service in Glasgow.
“We have never had this much snow east of the divide, this widespread,” Fransen said, at least not since 2002 and the beginning of modern snow modeling.
In the first week of March, a blanket of snow 20 to 30 inches deep stretched nearly 300 miles west to east across the Hi-Line from Cut Bank to Glasgow and diagonally down to Billings, where the snow depth remained at 20 to 30 inches for 225 miles east to Ekalaka.
There are stretches along Interstate 94 where only two strands of barbed wire rise above the snow, and the fence posts appear less than 2 feet tall. In other areas, the fence lines have completely disappeared. You don’t see many antelope or deer out here, and no elk, save for a rare cow camped at the edge of a hay round.
The Farm Service Agency is traveling the state coaching ranchers on how to report losses for the Livestock Indemnity Program. The losses for now are anecdotal.
When the snow finally disappears and the Eastern Montana prairie grass stands tall, there’s going to be fewer animals of all stripes nibbling at it.
The shop thermometers in Kinsey read 19 degrees on this day, but whatever heat the sun offers is siphoned by northeasterly wind that presses a cold burn into everything upright. In the previous weeks in this community near Miles City, there have been subzero temperatures cold enough to chew a wet newborn’s ears down the nub, or maybe freeze a tail.
A newborn calf that sits on the ground too long can start out life sick and become illness-prone the rest of its life.
Martin more or less lives in the heifer barn during the season. There is a cot four inches off the floor in the tack room and a stack of horse magazines to see him through the night. The cowboy comes up to the house for a few hours in the early evening, while his wife, Brenda, watches the heifers, but then it’s back to the barn.
The heifers are never alone, and for good reason. Occasionally they don’t realize they’re parents. A heifer can bulge at the ribs like a piano-stuffed gunnysack and still not recognize the calf she drops as her own.
Martin tells of a night this month when he was up at the house napping. Brenda called from out on the ranch to say two heifers were fighting over a calf. One of the animals had lost her calf to some standing water — a puddle, he’s told over the phone, where the calf had wandered off and died.
Martin came running, saddled up on an all-terrain vehicle, driving through the darkness toward a lot well beyond where the cows are expected to be. He reached the quarreling heifers and then spotted his wife.
“She is hugged up next to a Russian olive tree with a dead calf in the water a few feet away. The 'puddle' is a small lake that would come halfway to your knee,” Martin explained. “The light swings, and I see her muck boots, but no feet. She is standing barefoot, ankle deep in mud.”
Brenda had thought she might be able to free the calf and save its life, but in the process the muck claimed her knee-high boots, which were so stuck it took all of Martin’s strength to wrestle them from pond bottom. All of this took place as the hour approached midnight on a pitch-back night.
Martin draped the calf over the tank of the ATV and drove it to birthing barn. The rancher has converted a large water tank into a hot box with forced heat to revive chilled calves. He then herded the stray cattle back into the dry lot from which they wandered off and went to reunite the heifer with her newborn as Brenda headed back to the house to warm up.
“That’s when I realize I forgot to shut the gate from the alley to the dry lot and the whole bunch has just hightailed it back out. At this point I’m frustrated and tired, it’s almost midnight,” Martin recounted. “I decide to go back to the barn, again, and get the four-wheeler to chase them in. The newborn’s mother finally gets reunited with the baby, and I put them in the barn where I’m sure not to lose track of them again. Now it’s time to go check on Brenda.”
In the last two weeks, the weather has gone from bone chilling but dry to mildly warmer and wet. Both circumstances are challenging.
The National Weather Service issues CANLs, or Cold Advisories for Newborn Livestock. These are short forecasts that track the danger the weather poses to newborn livestock, taking conditions like cloud cover, temperature, wind chill and moisture into account. There have been several extreme advisories issued in February, but March could actually be worse, said NWS Meteorologist Victor Proton, who handles the advisories for Eastern Montana. March's rain and moist snow can be more of a problem than weather that’s dry and colder.
Cold advisories for newborn livestock are used across the country by the National Weather Service, but the system got its start in Glasgow. Fransen was on a plane with rancher Lynn Cornwell, a Glasgow rancher who had several roles in national beef organizations, including the National Cattlemen’s Foundation.
Fransen had a little bit of grant money and was looking for a way to help agriculture. Cornwell, who died in 2008, had simple request: Find a way to cut down on newborn livestock losses.
“We started talking, and he said ‘weather makes or breaks us in livestock,’” Fransen said. She collaborated with a couple academics who focused not only on weather, but also on animal biology. CANL is the product they created.
Weather does $1 billion in damage to the livestock industry every year, Fransen said. Knowing when weather conditions are going to be detrimental to newborns gives ranchers a fighting chance.
Inside the calving barn, the heifer’s clamor from head butting her pen gave way to silence. Martin stepped away from his pickup where Rio watched from the back. The rancher pried open the barn’s small side door and peeked in.
“Hey! They’re both laying down,” Martin said, beaming.