PRYOR — The heifer was out of her pen, and out of her mind, crashing through the alley of Turk Stovall’s calving barn like a bear wearing a crown of hornets.
At first, ranch hands Sal Frasier and Gus Bass just let her go, the way one might let a 1,200 pound ballerina clear a dance floor. But then her ribcage began heaving and under the panic of imminent labor she charged into the birthing chute mistaking it for an exit.
Sleeved in blue disposable gloves, Bass reached elbow deep inside the mother and felt for the calf.
“She’s presenting right, two feet and a nose,” Bass said. Then worked his hand around the calf’s head to make sure the birth canal was open enough.
It was the ranch’s 35th calf in 24 hours, its 150th of the week, after a single day in which 70 newborns hit the barn floor. All this activity was occurring as temperatures outside fluctuated from 22 degrees below zero to 51 degrees above. The barometric pressure drops were labor inducing. The heifers and weather flashing hot then cold, fight then flight.
This winter has been a wild ride, ranchers say. The young hands say they’ve never seen anything like it. The old hands say it’s “as bad as the winter of ’78,” except the snow hasn’t capped the ground from October to March. Regardless, the winter of ‘14 will be known as the winter that zippers wore out and calf ears were frozen to a nub.
At times, the weather has been fatal. Calves have been dropping into the bitter cold since mid-January, and it doesn't take much to kill a newborn. Eventually the deaths will be tabulated as ranchers apply for livestock disaster assistance, but that process won't begin for another month.
"The only more definite report we have is from the Eastern part of the state where two or three weeks ago calf losses were in excess of 10 percent," said Bruce Nelson, Montana Farm Service Agency director. "We know that there have been some extremely cold weather conditions alternating with warm conditions, which can be a pretty troublesome combination for calves and lambs."
It has been a cold winter across Montana's northern Hi-line. This region of snow-crusted plains is where Nelson's 10 percent mortality rate originated. The community of Glasgow has had 50 days with below-zero temperatures since October, including 10 days when temperatures were minus 20 or colder, according to the National Weather Service.
Calving is one challenge. Assuring that cattle have enough feed to stay warm is another. At the Fort Keogh Livestock and Range Research Laboratory in Miles City, manager Brad Eik has been doling out extra helpings to the fort's herd most of the winter.
Each cow receives 10 to 15 pounds of good hay, plus 17 pounds of good straw. On a day when the temperature drops below zero, each animal may need 3 to 10 more pounds of feed so it has enough calories to generate heat.
“We’ve had way more snow than we’re accustomed to and it’s been cold,” Eik said. “The snow is fine to some extent, but then you get a warm-up and it ices over. You get ice and snow. The cow digs through it and loses the hair on the back of her hooves.”
A little bare skin on a below-zero day causes all kinds of problems. And Miles City has had several frigid days. In a 100-day span beginning in late November, the low temperature in Miles City dropped below zero for 45 days, according to the National Weather Service. On 48 days in that time span the high temperature was 10 degrees or lower.
The daily low temperature in Miles City broke records six times, with a chilly minus 36 on Dec. 7 being the coldest day of the season.
Eik loads up the hay auger with low-protein grass hay when the weather turns for the worse. His cows need quick energy and protein takes too long to break down. The Fort Keogh cattle congregate along the green line of hay snaking across the snow and devour every blade until nothing remains but winter-hardened earth.
This will be the frozen feeding ritual until temperatures warm, or until Eik’s heifers drop their calves. Then the researcher will up the protein in the new mothers’ diets so they produce enough milk for their children.
Eik waits until late in March or early April to begin calving, hoping to avoid the deadly kiss of a late winter freeze, like the minus-19-degree morning that bit Miles City on March 2. Despite being born a month late, the calves aren't any smaller come fall market time. That's how harsh life can be for a calf born in January or February.
At Stovall’s there’s no waiting. The ranch has more than a thousand heifers waiting to become first-time moms. The pace of births, roughly 35 a day, was determined months ago when the herd's pregnancies were synchronized.
Through March, the births take place inside, where ranch hands can assist moms who have never dropped a calf, and may not even recognize the newborn beneath them as their own.
The cold weather transformed the barn into a MASH unit with plastic tarps draped low over pens to keep the heat from flying into the barn rafters. It took every resource the crew had to keep the temperature at 32 degrees during the 26 days this winter when the temperature dropped below zero. Freezing temperatures have set 11 records this winter in the Billings area, according to the National Weather Service. And Stovall’s is just 20 miles southeast of town in the coyote-plagued Pryor drainage that is even colder and more windswept.
The roar of diesel-fueled space heaters is constant in Stovall’s barn. In early March, when the temperature crashed to 21 degrees below zero, ranch hands fed 55 gallons of diesel a day into the heaters just to keep the barn temperature hovering above freezing.
After the electric warming boxes for cold calves blew the breakers on the ranch house, the crew fired up diesel generators to keep the boxes warm.
At one point in the season, the birthing room caught fire and had to be put out by a ranch hand hose-and-bucket brigade.
“A carpenter working on the house saw the smoke and called Jenny, my wife” Stovall said. “She texted everyone and they all got the message, miraculously. We don’t have cell service. We called 911, but the fire department never showed up.”
It has been the season of near misses and close saves. Out of the hundreds of calves Stovall’s crew has birthed so far, only 10 have died. Mainly the mortality rate is so low because calves seldom go unwatched, even after being turned out to pasture in the boulder-encircled draw Stovall calls his outdoor barn.
There, the heifers and their calves congregate on long ramps of straw. Straw is critical, Stovall said. It keeps the chill of the frozen ground away from the animals and the mud away from calves.
Mud and bacteria go to work on spring calves like rust on a car. Mother cows do their best to lick a calf clean, but a calf can still be destroyed by ulcers or scours, a diarrhea caused by milk gorging.
The rocks and trees surrounding the "outside barn" keep winter’s sting off. The ranch hands are up here every hour checking for stragglers from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. At night, the bed check involves riding up the draw on horseback with a rechargeable floodlight in one hand to check on the huddled heifers. The calves huddled on the straw beds aren’t the ones you need to worry about, Stovall said.
“It’s the guy who’s off by himself, who’s head droops, who’s unresponsive, that concerns us,” Stovall said. “You stick your finger down his throat to see if he’s cool. You know it when you feel it, if he isn’t OK. Then you have to act fast.”
As Stovall speaks, two large bald eagles perched in a dead pine above the rocks stare intently at the herd. There are dangers everywhere, big and small, as a coyote-chewed calf carcass on the birthing barn floor attests.
The easy part truly is pulling the unborn to daylight.
In the birthing room, Bass, still working with the bewildered heifer, has produced her calf’s two front legs from the birthing canal. He grabs on tight to both legs and pulls with the might of someone trying to draw a small car uphill using only a tow rope and his bare hands.
After a quick minute, the ranch hand lets go of the calf, reaches for a rusty pole and plants it in the floor behind the heifer. He braces himself with the pole and then grabs the calf’s legs again and pulls hard. Still no luck.
The calf’s nose is visible but still in the birthing sack, which Bass tears open with his fingers, before grabbing a calf puller, which he chains to the newborn before jacking it free one ratchet handle pull at a time.
In the corner of the room, there’s a handful of straw to poke the newborn in the nose to get it sneezing and opening its lungs.
Bass and Frasier grab the calf by the legs and lay it quickly at the mother’s nose. It’s important she identifies it as her own by smell.
If the heifer doesn't take to motherhood, the calf has to be grafted to another mom, one that’s lost a calf. The graft is made by tying the pelt of her dead calf to the orphan’s back to transfer the scent.
Today that won’t be necessary. The heifer is cleaning her newborn. The temperature outside is rising.
“If he sits up and his head is up, you know he’s OK,” Stovall said.
On cue, the newborn tucks his legs beneath him and stares bleary eyed at his surroundings.