This year’s wintry spring is hard on calves

Farm Forum

Ranchers who are calving across northeast South Dakota have likely gone without much sleep because of the weather.

“It’s probably the coldest calving season that I ever remember,” said Mike Mettler, a rancher who lives northeast of Eureka. “There’s just been no warm-ups at all.”

Calving season is most intense between February and June. Between those months is usually a time of transition, where snow begins to melt and fields get muddy. Many ranchers expected that, but not many anticipated the winter weather to extend into April.

“A lot of guys like to calve out in the pastures and things like that,” Mettler said, adding that they opt to do so because they don’t want to use barns.

Many ranchers are struggling with the snow, mud and cold, said Corey Eberhart, a Eureka rancher.

Warren Rusche, South Dakota State University Extension cow calf field specialist in Watertown, said this year has been the toughest he can remember in his 23 years in the business.

A lot of South Dakota ranchers will let their cows into the pasture to calve, he said. That system doesn’t work very well this year because of the weather. Because many ranchers don’t have enough barns to accommodate all their cows and calves, most are just letting their cows go out to pasture, he said.

Each farmer is developing his own methods to mitigate the effects of the weather, such as keeping cows close to shelter, using wind break fences, bringing calves to a barn and putting bedding out in the pastures.

“They know exactly what they need to do. It’s not going to be fun,” he said.

Many ranchers were caught off guard because they don’t anticipate winter weather in April, he said.

Hypothermia could set in for calves within 45 minutes, he said. With the wet and muddy conditions, the calves are also susceptible to more diseases, he said.

“There’s a lot of folks going out every two to three hours and checking cows,” he said.

He added that the April snow could benefit farmers with the added moisture but hurt ranchers because of the number of calves dying because of the weather.

“The net result is still a little up in the air,” he said.

Eberhart decided seven years ago to start his calving season around June instead of earlier.

“I was just tired of fighting the mud. Even after the snow goes away, you’re going to have health issues with calves,” he said.

He prefers calving in warmer weather on the grass without the mud.

Mettler, who is in his 18th calving year, doesn’t like the muddy conditions.

“I’d rather calve on frozen ground than mud any day,” he said. “It’s a lot easier.”

Jim Bain, veterinarian at Frederick Vet Clinic, said he hasn’t got much rest.

“I got done at midnight last night and left at 5 a.m. this morning,” he said Tuesday.

One of the more common difficulties were calves who didn’t develop immune systems catching diseases.

“If a calf doesn’t nurse the required first milk within the first 12-18 hours, he has no ability to fight disease the rest of his life,” he said. He added many calves that were born a week ago during the winter storm have began developing illnesses like pneumonia.

“I wouldn’t say it’s the hardest, but it’s been so long and so cold,” he said. “I guess this winter was probably one of the toughest for us.”