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It's 8 a.m. at Haaland's Blue Creek Feeders and cowhand Chuck Irwin is making breakfast for 4,000.

His Roto-Mix 600-16 feed mixer groans as Irwin rolls into a clearing surrounded by hills of hay, corn and silage. Some of the ingredients are steaming in the 29-degree January air as Irwin climbs into the cab of a wheel loader and begins measuring ingredients four cubic yards at a time.

These are challenging times at a feedlot, where cattle are fattened up at a rate of 2.5 pounds a day. While it's never exactly easy to put those pounds on, cold temperatures make it extremely difficult. A weeklong cold spell of sub-zero temperatures has had Irwin mixing an additional 24,000 pounds of food a day just to make up for calories lost to shivering.

The Roto-Mixer, a Henry Ford-meets-Betty Crocker contraption, begins tossing 600 cubic feet of breakfast with five steel paddles churning in the giant steel bed of a farm truck as Irwin puts the truck in drive and aims for the nearest pen of hungry steers.

"We have about 4,000 animals right now. They go through two semi-truck loads of corn a day," Norma Haaland said. As cattle gathered along the fence line for grub, she was on horseback, working the pens with daughter Anna Haaland and two cow dogs.

The women make sure no one goes hungry or thirsty and that every animal is getting its turn at the long, concrete trough Irwin fills and refills with cold cereal.

The chilly weather of the past week was challenging, Anna Haaland said, but as a whole the winter this year has been extremely mild, which has cut costs for cattle operations significantly. At this time last year, the cattle industry was in its 10th week of a brutal winter, starting in November 2010 when snow blanketed most of Montana and didn't thaw until spring.

Northern Montana received so much snow in early 2011 that it was impossible for cattle to dig down and find natural grass. Feed costs cut deep into producer profits. This year has been favorable, said Rachel Endecott, Montana State University extension beef specialist.

"This year's been awesome," Endecott said. "Everywhere I've been traveling across the state people are talking about how many days they've gone without having to feed so much hay or how many bales they've saved."

Cattle do their best when the temperature is in the low 30s, she said. Montana has had many days in that range and several nights. It's when temperatures fall below 17 degrees or are driven down by wind chill that animals need more feed. When it's cold, cattle go to work keeping warm. Their muscles shiver, their heartbeat picks up, their breaths become deeper and calories burn rapidly.

Montana is a long way from winter's end, Endecott said. She's cautioning ranchers to be prepared for a plunge into deep cold, especially in the weeks ahead as calving season approaches. Roughly 75 percent of an unborn calf's development happens in the final 90 days before birth. Keeping everyone well-fed is critical.

Contact Tom Lutey at

tlutey@billingsgazette.com or 657-1288

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.