Cattlemen battle elements
Jeff Ensey hasn’t slept much in the past week and a half and doesn’t have much time to talk.
Not when calves are being born during a streak of subzero cold.
He and his mother, Melanie, were heading out to look for a cow they knew was getting ready to give birth.
When they went to check on her, she wasn’t near the herd. They finally found her on the other side of a creek.
The calf had been born, but the newborn was freezing as temperatures plunged to -7.
Ensey waded through the ice and water, picked up the calf, and brought it to his truck. They kept it in a heated garage all night and used a heat lamp and blow dryer to dry it off.
“We didn’t rub the calf down because we wanted the cow’s scent to remain on it,” Melanie said.
A 14-day stretch of record cold has kept area cattlemen battling to feed and water their livestock and save their calves.
Calves can withstand cold if they are dried off after birth, but the Enseys will get up in the middle of the night in subzero cold to look for them.
It was eight degrees below zero when they took their new calf out to pasture Monday morning.
The mother cow wouldn’t leave the heard to claim the calf, so Ensey herded it across the creek and placed the calf where it was born until the cow followed. The cow waded through a frozen creek to rejoin the herd, but Ensey didn’t want the calf to walk through and water, so he carried it.
In winter, the Enseys keep their cows in four pastures with 40 head in each to make them easier to work with. They drive two farm trucks over the pastureland to deliver big, round bales of feed hay and break ice in pasture ponds daily.
“We enjoy the cows and like working with them, especially when they cooperate with us,” Melanie said.
Last Friday morning, Larry and Melanie had five calves in their garage. They give newborns a bottle of colostrum to get them started and have warmed at least 20 during the cold snap.
She said many wonder why ranchers have cattle in the middle of winter, but there is a method to their madness.
“If calves are born in February, they can be worked in April and go off to grass with their mothers,” Melanie said. Then they can be weaned in August and sold.
Mark Harms, owner of Plainview Ranch in Lincolnville, raises black and red angus, but his is a fall calving operation.
His calves weight about 300 pounds right now, but they still need protection from the cold wind and plenty of food.
“They will have to produce more body heat, so energy is something they will need more of,” he said.
But an extended streak of cold, like this week’s, puts pressure on both cattle and ranchers.
“Livestock can take cold like this for a short time, but when it lingers like this and hangs around,” he said ruefully.
“It not only stresses the cattle but producers have got to work overtime. There is just no two ways about it. It makes more work.”
Harms has placed bedding like straw to give his cattle something to lay on besides frozen ground.
Most producers have moved their cattle to pastures protected by windbreaks to shield them from the worst of the wind.
Harms has heated rooms where he used to put calves when he raised newborns in winter.
Donnie Hett is another area producer who gets up two or three times a night to check for calves.
He has a warmer in his machine shed about the size of a dog house and has a heater below the grated floor that blows warm air. He’s been able to save most of his calves.
But extreme subzero temperatures still have some worried about loss.
Spur Ridge Veterinary Hospital in Marion opened the doors to its dog shelter to cattlemen in need of a warm place for their calves. As of Tuesday morning, none had used it, but the offer still stood.
Harms said most cattlemen will do whatever it takes to shield calves from brutal weather.
“Just to be quite honest — they will bring them into the house if they have to,” he said. “They just will. It’s the nature of producers that they will do whatever they need to do.”
Last modified Feb. 17, 2021