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The fourth-coldest December on record is hitting Montana ranchers hard as feed costs nip at pocketbooks already chilled by shrinking beef payments.

"We're going through the hay now," said Jon Paterson, extension beef specialist for the Montana Beef Network. "We kept them out on range and pasture as long as we could, but that's over."

Subzero temperatures have a chilling effect on ranch bank accounts because cattle need a lot more food to get by in cold weather. Paterson notified ranchers earlier in December that their livestock could chew through as much as 140 percent of what they normally eat as temperatures dipped below zero.

A modest herd of 200 cows can chomp through more than $2,500 of good-quality hay in a week as their breathing deepens, their hearts beat faster and they begin shivering. This time of year, the cows are pregnant, and a shortage of high-energy food translates into sick calves in the spring and more deaths.

December was particularly rough on pastured livestock because of stretches of low temperatures. Livestock fattening in local feedlots have fared better, said Norm Haaland of Haaland's T-Bone feeders, because of wind breaks and the food that's much higher in energy than hay used on the ranch.

"From zero to above, cattle do OK," Haaland said.

It's a different story on the ranch with lower-energy food and no shelter from the wind. In the field, with dry winter coats, cattle begin running into trouble as the temperature falls below freezing. At 10 degrees, the animal needs another 3 to 4 pounds of food daily. At minus 10, the extra ration doubles.

For nearly two weeks in mid-December, the daily demand for feed rose as much as 40 percent on Montana ranches.

A 12-day stretch began Dec. 13 when the highs never rose above 7 degrees, and subzero lows were the norm for more than a week in Yellowstone County. Wind during that time crossed 20 mph on eight days.

Northeastern Montana's warmest night during that period was minus 11, according to the National Weather Service. Its warmest day was 7 degrees.

Cold weather boosts the feed demand, but winds that blew 20 mph or more for all but three days made matters worse.

Hay was in short supply in the Plentywood area already, said Terry Angvick, Sheridan County extension agent. The region's dryland hay crop was only a quarter its normal size because of bad spring weather and summer drought.

And several ranchers had more mouths to feed because they didn't take their cattle to market in the fall. Prices were low, and many ranchers reasoned they would get more money if their cattle were sold as yearlings in the spring. To fetch a good spring price, those animals needed to gain a pound or more daily, which is nearly impossible in cold weather conditions.

"Oh yeah, it goes up considerably. The temperature gets down to 25 below with the wind chill factor and they start losing weight," said Chuck Maki, who raises winter wheat and black Angus near Columbus.

Maki divides his time between spreading feed, busting ice in his water tanks and keeping his farm machinery working. The year came to a bumpy end for Maki and a lot of Montana ranchers as beef prices fell on concerns that corn feed costs would stay high and that recession-worried consumers would forego red meat.

He took his cattle to market in early December hoping for a better price, which didn't materialize. Sales in October and early November are the norm.

A frigid January with long streaks of subzero weather like December would cut into spring profits even further, Paterson said. Cattle that stayed on the ranch in the fall translate into more mouths to feed and more good hay at $120 to $150 a ton for ranchers who don't have enough to last through winter.

On Christmas Eve, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported Montana hay demand to be stable, with most ranchers still using hay that had been contracted for last summer. The forecast, though, was for an increase in supplemental hay feeding, with ranchers looking to buy despite being disappointed with current prices.

Right now, cattle are consuming about 30 pounds of food per head daily, Paterson said, with about 10 pounds of straw mixed in. But straw has low nutritional value, and, with most cows entering their third trimester of pregnancy this month, better groceries are in order.

Contact Tom Lutey at tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288.

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