Season of struggle

Cold and snow expected to impact calving season after a challenging winter for ranchers


March 9, 2023

Jeff Moberg

A group of cows finish up their morning meal west of Sundance on Tuesday. As calving season approaches, producers are hopeful the active winter pattern will transition to more spring-like conditions soon.

The toughest winter in a while might have been easier on Crook County's ranchers if it hadn't come on the heels of several years of drought.

"Cold and snow is a problematic thing, whether you're talking for calving or just wintering cattle and yearlings," says Wade Crawford of Crook County Veterinary Service.

"You end up having to feed more hay, which was in limited supply last year."

Two to three years of dry weather meant that nobody had much extra feed for their animals, he says.

"What we deal with is people trying to be creative in their feed selection. Some people over by Moorcroft and other places haven't had to feed a lot, but then there's been places where they've fed more than normal – in which case, it's caused an increased cost for wintering cattle," Crawford says.

"That's the biggest thing: it's much it costs to run a cow."

Just like humans, cows burn more calories in the cold.

"If you stayed outside for a long period of time, you would need to consume more calories to keep your body regulated and the thermostat in your body going," he says.

"When you need to stay warm in the cold and wind, your body needs more calories and ups its metabolism, and the cow does the same thing. When you up your metabolism, it needs more calories, and that ends up being more pounds of feed for those cows over the course of the winter."

The winter weather has been tough enough to prompt Governor Mark Gordon to submit a request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a disaster designation. The winter started early and the impacts of cold, wind and snow have caused significant distress to the livestock industry across the state, with difficulty in accessing traditional winter grazing resources due to roads drifting shut.

According to data from the National Weather Service's event tracking system, Wyoming was under some combination of weather warning for 66.5% of the time in the months of January and February.

Fortunately, Crawford points out, ranchers in this area are rarely taken by surprise by the unpredictable nature of Wyoming's seasons.

"The people round here are pretty used to inclement winters. They plan for it, and they're pretty good at keeping their cows in good health and doing well," he says.

For instance, ranchers know that a good windbreak can make all the difference.

"Blowing snow decreases the visibility and kind of drives them, because they don't like it hitting them in the face. If they don't have a windbreak or a hill to get behind, they can drift or move downwind," he says.

"The beauty of this time of year is that people have them in their winter pastures to take care of them. They've got a windbreak for them to go behind or hills and they're prepared to get some feed in front of them."

So far, there's been little sign of a green-up happening any time soon. The spring may well bring more heavy snowfall, just as calving season starts to wind up.

"If the snow sticks around for calving season, that's when it gets difficult," Crawford says. "It's a lot easier to feed a cow without a calf with snow and when you start getting calves on the ground, it becomes much more difficult to find them somewhere dry to lay down and try to keep them from getting sick from the wind and cold weather."

While there has been little in the way of sickness and extra mortality up until now, the spring can be a dangerous time.

"That's the thing about cows: they're pretty tough. As long as you can keep feed in front of them, they'll do alright," he says.

That toughness does come with a caveat, though: it's earned along with a cow's age.

"As my associate said, the calves come out with a summer hair coat," he says.

"These mature cows have good, thick hair on them and they're ready to roll, but a baby calf comes out with a little slick hair coat and if you drop them in 15 below with the wind blowing, they don't last very long. That's when people get them in the barn, get them warmed up and take care of them."

If the weather continues, Crawford says we may see more health issues.

"I don't think it's affected the health of people's cattle up to date. If the spring stays cold and wet, we will see more of the calving diseases of scours and enterotoxemia and things like that," Crawford says.

Enterotoxemia is known as the "overeating disease"; an acute poisoning condition caused by a bacterium, it can cause the death of a calf in as little as 12 hours. Scours, meanwhile, is diarrhea, which can cause dehydration and is said to be the leading cause of death in calves under one month of age.

Again, Crawford expects that experience and knowledge will lead Crook County's ranchers to do well through the weeks of spring.

"People round here are pretty good at getting feed in front of them and keeping them sheltered. Usually, most people are pretty well set up for taking care of them," he says.

"The hard part is when it gets to calving time. People are used to calving in nice weather."

He's quick to compliment the efforts of local ranchers in keeping all their four-legged wards healthy through the months of snow and wind.

"Literally, we've had no problems with inclement temperatures. Some frozen ears on some cows, but horses are also very resilient and we've had no problems with people taking care of their animals in the cold weather," he says.

"People round here know how to do it. Ranchers are pretty well prepared."

And, as he points out, by the time summer finally arrives, there will be reasons to feel grateful for the excess moisture.

"The beauty of the snow is that it's the promise of maybe some grass and some water in the tanks and in the ponds," he says.


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