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Lessons Learned From Winter

After last winter's historically harsh weather, Lance Froelich, like a host of other North Dakota beef producers, plans new ways to better prepare his beef cattle for winter.

A third-generation rancher of the river breaks near Selfridge, Froelich comes from a long tradition of producers who've weathered bad winters. But even that didn't prepare him for the winters of 2008 and 2009.

The stage was set for winter disaster in North Dakota when back-to-back years of drought reduced pasture and forage resources, sending beef producers into winter short of feed. Then, heavy snow came in early November, and winter continued with little letup until mid-April.

Frequent snowfalls and strong winds brought record-level accumulations that persistently blocked roads and choked winter feeding yards. The state's death loss in cows and calves tallied 90,000 head.

"People got behind the eight ball early on," says Greg Lardy, Extension beef cattle specialist, North Dakota State University. "One of the biggest difficulties came from having so much snow to move to get feed to the cattle. It was like doing battle just to do the feeding."

Hard as it was, Froelich brought his beef cattle through the winter just fine. But spring brought melting snow, and his difficulties began in earnest.

"We normally calve in the trees and brush along the Cannonball River, which is usually about 50 feet across," he says. "But when the snow started to melt, the river swelled to as wide as a half mile across in some places and took away all our calving ground."

He then moved the cattle to the unsheltered uplands above the breaks.

"That's when the blizzards came," he says. "The last weekend in March, we got 1 inch of freezing rain and on top of that 2 inches of snow with wind. The next weekend we got a blizzard that dropped2 feet of heavy, wet snow."

Needless to say, scours and pneumonia took their toll on the calves. And by the time the weather settled, Froelich's calf losses -- like those of some of his neighbors -- tallied 15%. The average calf loss for his herd is only about 4%.

To reduce future risk relating to calving in bad weather, Froelich plans to vaccinate pregnant cows against scours in the calves.

He also plans to calve later. "I'll start calving heifers the first of March, and the main cow herd will start the first of April," Froelich says.

After weathering last winter, beef producer John Marshall, Towner, North Dakota, plans to calve later, as well.

"We are going to calve a week later," he says. "We will start calving April 15."

The harsh weather added nearly $60 a head to Marshall's average feed costs. Like a lot of cattle producers in his area, Marshall headed into the winter short of feed and ended up supplementing with more grain than normal.

"Because the snow came early and stayed, it covered up three weeks of grazing we had held in reserve for late fall," he says.

Froelich plans to save hay in the future simply by moving stored hay to higher ground. "Along with 3-1/2 miles of fence line, we lost 250 big round bales when the river swallowed it up," he says. "We were already short of hay; we needed every bale we had."

Froelich filled the shortfall by getting hay from an uncle, but the haul was 20 miles in one direction.

In sum, learning from a winter's hard lessons is the best way to safeguard cattle in the future.

"I encourage people to think about the challenges they faced in the winter," says Lardy. "Identify the bottlenecks that pointed to the weakest links in your system. Put a plan in place that details what you would do in case you got into a situation like that again.

"This country has a history of having rough winters," he says. "It's possible such a winter as the last one could repeat itself in the current generation's lifetime."

After last winter's historically harsh weather, Lance Froelich, like a host of other North Dakota beef producers, plans new ways to better prepare his beef cattle for winter.

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