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Ranchers optimistic 'calf-killing blizzard' could be 'extraordinary condition' needed to break the drought

A series of storms brought around 4 feet of snow to some parts of the region. While the storm and its aftermath continue to stress ranchers and cattle, there is optimism that it spells the beginning of the end of a dry cycle.

Black cows and calves are coated in snow and ice.
A historic April blizzard in 2022 created dangerous conditions for cattle and ranchers. Jen Meyer submitted this photo of cattle coated in snow and ice.
Contributed / Jen Meyer
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Ranchers across the northern Plains fought in mid-April to shield their cattle through back-to-back storms that dumped as much as 4 feet of snow and brought winds that whipped it into roof-high drifts.

The storm swirled through most of North Dakota, parts of Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota, as well as into southern Canada. Western and central North Dakota recorded the highest snow totals, both from the first blizzard April 12-14 and a separate system on April 17.

While the storms created dangerous conditions for cattle and their owners, they also may have been just what they needed. The areas hit hardest by snow also have been the areas hit hardest by drought since July 2020. People throughout the region are hoping the moisture created by the blizzard could be a turning point to moving from a dry cycle to a wetter cycle.

But before the precipitation for which ranchers have been praying could provide any real relief, they had to go through the pain that comes with a strong spring storm.

Near Watford City, North Dakota, where the first storm began April 12 and continued through April 14, snow reports were from 18- to 24-inches, said Vawnita Best, who owns a ranch with her husband, Pete.

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“It blew so much we have drifts as high as the barn, and we have bare ground,” Best said.

The Bests were more than half finished with calving their herd of 250 registered Angus when the storm was forecast, so they moved them to a pasture with protection and gave them enough feed to last for three days. They moved the rest of the herd, which hadn’t calved, into the yard to be checked every few hours.

About a dozen calves were born during the storm, and the Bests put the cows that were giving birth and the newborns into the barn. They lost two newborns that couldn’t stand up amid the wind and snow and among the cows. They died before the Bests found them.

Despite the calves’ deaths, Bests count themselves fortunate compared with other ranchers in western North Dakota who were unable to get to their cattle during the storm and had numerous losses.

“We have a lot of neighbors that have had a lot of stress and anxiety,” Best said.

The storm was in the top three worst spring storms Best can remember, along with the 1997 snow-ice storm when her father lost about 10% of the calves on their ranch and the May Day storm in 2011 when an ice storm toppled electrical lines and the Bests were calving without power.

“Spring storms are challenging,” she said.

Veeder cows.jpg
Cattle in Watford City, North Dakota, walk through a snow drift. Gene Veeder said he lost calves through the storm but he is optimistic the snow will improve drought conditions.
Contributed / Gene Veeder

Also near Watford City, Gene Veeder said he moved his cows to the most protected pasture he could. His cows weren’t actively calving until after the storm, but even then, he lost several when the cows calved in low, wet or snowy places. In one case, a cow killed her calf, and he blames the conditions making her act out of character as she tried to get the calf up and moving.

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“That was a terrible storm,” he said.

A couple of hundred miles southeast of Watford City, about 2 feet of snow fell during the April 12-14 storm, and another 5 inches during the second on April 17 at the Angus ranch of Chris Moch, near Sterling, North Dakota.

Moch was about 30% finished calving his herd of 120 before the April storms. On the day before the first one hit, he moved the cows and calves in with cows that hadn’t yet calved into the ranch yard where there was shelter and feed.

A cow is coated in snow and ice, with only its nose visible. Even the eartag is whitened by the snow.
A cow near Medina, North Dakota, is coated in snow and ice, with only its nose visible. A storm in mid-April blanketed the majority of North Dakota and parts of other surrounding states in heavy, wet snow.
Contributed / Kendra Boehm

About 15 calves were born during the storm. Moch’s barn isn’t large enough to hold more than five or six cow-calf pairs at a time, so he cycled the cows that calved or were calving during the storm through the building.

Moch and his wife and son checked on the cattle every hour, dragging the calves that were born outside on a sled to the barn. After the newborns dried off and nursed, they moved them back outside to make room for another batch.

On Tuesday, April 19, a week after the first storm began, the calves and newborns appeared to be healthy, and Moch was working to keep them that way.

“Dragging them in the barn this morning,” Moch said. “This wind is just stupid cold.”

The week after the onset of the first storm, Bill Smith, also was still digging out at Midway Polled Herefords near Sheyenne, North Dakota, from about 20 inches of snow that fell from April 12-15 and another 6 inches that fell on April 17.

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“I just came off of the dozer,” Smith said on April 18.

About 150 of the ranch’s calves were on the ground before the storms and nearly 200 of his cows hadn’t given birth.

Smith bedded the cows close to the barn and the calves were protected from the wind and snow in the converted school buses he uses as calf shelters. He also has portable windbreaks, set at a slant, for shelter.

About 25 calves were born during the storms, and two of them died, despite Smith’s efforts to save them.

Although the snow caused calf losses and extra work for Smith, he’s grateful for the moisture, which improves the outlook for his pastures and crops. Both suffered during the drought of 2021.

“The old timers, I’ve heard them say ‘You’ve got to have a calf-killing blizzard in the spring to break the drought,'" Smith said.

Drought outlook

091321.AG.CattleDroughtRainCountermovesIb03.jpg
Many ranchers in North Dakota sold cows or weaned calves early and sold them during 2021 to conserve what little grass they had as a record-long drought impacted the region. Photo taken Aug. 31, 2021, Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek file photo

While the immediate impacts of the April blizzard were difficult for ranchers, the long-term impacts are more hopeful.

“This is a huge help,” said Adnan Akyuz, North Dakota state climatologist. “This is better than what the doctors ordered.”

“It will make a huge difference, because we had just kind of enough top moisture so the grass was starting to green a little bit, and now this is the first mud I've seen for a couple years honestly,” said Veeder, who ranches with his son-in-law.

Veeder said they sold down 30% of their herd in 2021, in large part because water sources had dried up in pastures. They planned to sell the whole herd if they didn’t receive significant precipitation by July 2022, then rebuild when conditions improved.

His son-in-law told him that if someone had offered to end the drought if he paid $5,000 in the fall, he would have taken the deal. With calves lost, Veeder figures a $5,000 hit from the storm isn’t far off.

“It probably is what we lost in this thing but he's right,” Veeder said. Losing calves was disheartening, but the possibility that the drought might be nearing a close is encouraging.

Parts of North Dakota started to experience drought conditions in July 2020, Akyuz explained. That may not have been immediately obvious, as late 2019 and early 2020 had been very wet in some places. But from July 2020 until this storm, parts of North Dakota — especially in the northwest — remained abnormally dry. Akyuz recorded more than 60 weeks of drought conditions, far exceeding the 30 weeks the area experienced in 2006.

Drought-pasture.JPG
Drought conditions began in July 2020, making the 2021 growing and grazing season particularly dry. Photo taken in Stutsman County, N.D., on March 31, 2021.
Jenny Schlecht / Agweek file photo

“This is actually three years of drought in the making,” he said.

Akyuz explained that dry conditions beget dry conditions. When the soil is dry, there is less moisture for evaporation and fewer “local sources” for moisture to turn into precipitation. The local water cycle is especially important for somewhere like North Dakota, far removed from large bodies of water like an ocean or gulf, he said.

To break out of a drought of that length takes “something very extraordinary,” he said. And the blizzard, along with the precipitation that followed, appeared likely to be “the extraordinary condition we were looking for to turn that cycle into the opposite trend.”

The snow will slowly melt and “trickle” into the soil. And that will rejuvenate soil moisture more than an equivalent amount of rain would have.

“It would overflow the surface,” Akyuz said about getting several inches of rain versus snow with the same liquid equivalent. “That wouldn’t be as helpful as the current conditions.”

Plus, just as dry conditions lead to more dry conditions, moisture leads to more moisture. He anticipates the snow will add more water to the atmosphere, helping create continuing precipitation events. The conditions also should keep it cooler than last year.

Already by Monday, April 18, more precipitation events were in the 16-day forecast.

“It looks like a wet period is going to continue,” Akyuz said.

Veeder said the past year has brought the worst drought and the worst storm he’s seen in his 65 years, but the moisture should improve the pasture outlook, and hay supplies should be more plentiful across the region.

The blizzard won’t mean an immediate end to drought concerns, even though Akyuz thinks the trend is favorable for improvement. Because the drought was a long-term situation, some of the impacts will be, too. For instance, the drought didn’t just leave the soil lacking in moisture; it also depleted dugouts that are used for watering livestock.

“And unfortunately this isn’t going to be enough to refill those dugouts,” Akyuz said.

But he remains cautiously optimistic that the blizzard will be a turning point to the end of the drought.

And Veeder is optimistic, too, not just because of the storm but because that’s part of ranching.

“You shouldn't be in this business if you don't look to the bright side, because it will get to you,” he said.

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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