Calving in extreme cold weather conditions
As extreme cold weather conditions have continued this week, so too has calving for those cattlemen who are relied on by their herds. No newborn awaits and keeping them alive is the main priority from the time they arrive.
“Adult cattle are pretty robust; they have a huge, functioning rumen that really acts as their heating core during the cold winter months,” says K-State Research and Extension Beef Veterinarian A.J. Tarpoff. “But the newborn calves are much more vulnerable to hypothermia and cold stress.”
For the Mark and Marne Hewitt family, their calving season began around the first of the month when temperatures weren't all bad. That has quickly changed with temperatures ranging from sub-zero (-15 to -25 degrees) and depending on the wind conditions and added snow on top of it, and managing their herds has been a 24 hour job.
A calf's internal body temperature should be between 101 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit. When the body temperature drops below that, trouble begins as their body doesn't pump as much blood to those areas. It will start to cut off blood supply to the skin, lower legs, ears and tails as it will pump the warmer blood first to the brain and other vital organs.
The Hewitt's are about half way finished calving and have approximately 40-50 calves on the ground.
"Mark is living out there in the cold, working 18-20 hours a day to keep them alive," said Marne. "We have a hired hand that takes the night shift and we have three to four men helping us with frozen water issues, feeding them and keeping straw laid down to help keep them warm as well."
The cows are birthing their calves in a shed to keep them out of the cold. When they arrive, they allow the mothers to lick them off and then they are quickly taken inside to dry them off before hypothermia sets in. They are also provided with supplemented colostrum, which are both very important items in keeping them alive.
So far they have only had one set of twins, which they say is good, because they are a lot more work.
Mark has put up some large hay bales to provide as wind breaks and they are feeding them a lot more for needed calories through the extreme cold conditions. They are mainly trying to keep them warm, alive and somewhat comfortable, as much as possible and it is non-stop procedure on checking their herds. Wind is an absolute killer, especially when the temperatures are already low.
Mark has been taking care of cattle for 40 plus years and this has been one of the most miserable calving seasons to date. They do a majority of their calving in the fall but sometimes when a cow hasn't given birth and is open, it is then moved into spring calving.
"We are always extremely busy in the fall for calving," said Marne, "But we have had some really hard years with spring calving. This year has been a big one."
Gilly's Gelbvieh, at the Roger Reiter farm northeast of Jewell, recently started the calving season in -17 degree weather.
They have been calving for 34 years and have around 150 cows. With their calving just now arrriving, twins were the first to come early and they shouldn't probably be getting started good until Feb. 24 or so.
"This is the coldest year we have ever experienced," they said. "Two years ago when it rained so much, the mud was pretty bad. Years ago previous to that, it was Easter weekend and we received a freezing ice storm.
"It was a bad time and we lost a lot of babies that weekend, even older ones as well."
Young couple, Bransen and Maddie Thiessen of Mitchell County, started calving out their first heifers around Jan. 15 with the temperatures averaging slightly above 40 degrees. The cow/calf operation has been a part of the Thiessen family his entire life.
"I believe my uncle and my dad began the cow herd around 1990," Bransen said. "Prior to that, my Grandpa, Vernon Thiessen, was in the feeder cattle business.
After Bransen's cow herd began calving around Feb. 8, they currently have about 65 calves on the ground this season.
"Monday night into early Tuesday morning was the coldest temperatures I've seen calving with temps hitting -23," said Bransen. "The long days, late nights, and variable weather may start to wear us down, but we're passionate about what we do and that's tending to our livestock. With that being said the hardest part by far is the loss of a new calf."
Despite, these extreme cold conditions this year, Bransen says January-March 2019 was one of the worst years for them.
"I can't speak for all the other farmers/ranchers in the area but from my experience the year of 2019 was the hardest year of calving, due to the fact the it was cold and wet for such a long duration," said Bransen.
Another young couple, but not new to the cattle business are the Jeff and Tara Pruitt family, who started calving on Jan. 15 when the weather was a lot warmer.
"Calving in January can be a tough-go but I'd pick calving on frozen ground over mud any day, said Brad.
Jeff moved back to Mitchell County in 2007 and bought his first set of cows. He and his wife Tara, now have around 350 calves on the ground so far.
"I don't remember a year when it has been this cold for so long," said Jeff. "We are definitely lucky to have a great set of guys working together to keep our calves alive. My dad Dan, and brother Brad, Jayson Garman, and Alfonze Klenda have been helping us when we need it."
"I'd say the worst part about the cold weather is picking the calves up and then trying to pair them back up," Jeff said. "Sometimes the momma wants them back and sometimes they don't. It can make for a long day when they don't. The other thing is trying to keep the water flowing and the ice chopped. Luckily my two oldest kids – Gunner and Hartley – were out of school for a few days and were able to help out."
Along with calving, the couple have been busy taking care of their own, as Tara recently gave birth to their sixth child, Bo Samuel on Jan. 29, and had to be in the hospital a while before having the baby and then after he was born. While Tara is normally able to help, since it has been cold, she has been at home with their four youngest children, while the older ones have been able to help dad as much as they can.
"They help check cows and pick up newborn calves and warm them up in the truck or in the shop," said Tara. "Once they're warmed up and on their feet, they have to take the calf back to its mom and try to get the calf to suck. They help bottle feed calves when it's needed and chop ice several times a day so the cows have water. They're out there early in the morning and sometimes stay with Jeff until really late at night. Jeff spends his days and most of his nights out with the cows during calving season. The kids really miss him but they're all looking forward to warmer weather so they can all go out and help as a family again."