Some dry spots finally free of snow were just beginning to appear in David Cervo’s calving pasture.
Then came another 10 centimetres of overnight snow.
That’s how it’s been during calving season in southern Alberta and across much of the Prairies, resulting in higher calf losses, shortages of hay and straw, and increased stress on cow-calf producers intent on keeping newborn calves alive.
Cervo and his brother, Dennis, calve about 430 cows on their ranch near Fort Macleod. They time the calving season to begin in early April when conditions are usually mild.
But this year is anything but mild, with frequent snowfall and both daytime and nighttime temperatures well below average.
“Normally we have 300 (calves) on the ground by now that haven’t seen snow. This year we’ve got 150 that have seen snow. And I see it’s snowing again,” sighed Cervo April 12.
Their calving area along the Oldman River is usually bare and dry at this time of year, providing shelter to the cows and their newborns. This year, drifts are still caught among the trees and dry ground is almost nonexistent.
Though Cervo said calf losses have been about average, that isn’t the case for many other producers in the region.
Judy Nelson, who ranches near Maycroft, Alta., with her husband, Einar, son, Logan, and daughter-in-law, Emily, describes this calving season as “a nightmare.”
Calf losses are well above average because of snow, cold and wind chill.
“We intentionally calve in April so that we can calve on open range, so we’re not set up with any infrastructure for, particularly, the cold,” said Nelson.
“It was so cold for the first 10 days of calving.”
Even with frequent checks day and night, some newborns succumb to the cold before they are found. Nelson spoke of one calf, found at 3 a.m. that seemed fine.
“He was frozen by six in the morning.”
Nearly every calf has had to be brought into the warming shed, which is built to hold four but sometimes had to accommodate eight at a time.
“Every calf you bring in, you have to take back out and mother up, and when you have eight in there, they mix their scents up and it just makes for so much extra work.”
The Nelsons’ calving area on a south-facing slope, usually an ideal place for the 450 cows and their calves, remained covered in snow as of April 11. Cold east winds have been the norm instead of the mild western chinooks for which the region is known.
Snow and cold brings the need for more feed and bedding, and both are in short supply.
“We had to start buying feed in January, because we just never got any of those chinooks from November on, and we’ve been sourcing it from all over,” said Nelson.
“We’ve spent about twice what we usually do on feed already this year.”
Straw is difficult to find and expensive when it is found, she added.
Bob Balog of Balog Auction Services in Lethbridge said hay is selling for $230 to $240 per ton and straw for $130 to $140. The feed shortage has already brought more cattle to market than might otherwise be the case.
Balog talks to cow-calf producers every day and they’ve told him this calving season has been hard.
“I believe that this will be the toughest calving season that Western Canada has ever experienced, for a couple of reasons,” said Balog.
“Number one, because it’s extremely widespread. It’s not just one little pocket in a 100-mile radius where they’re losing calves. They’re losing calves in St. Walburg. They’re losing calves in Saskatoon. They’re losing calves in Mannville. They’re losing calves in Milk River. They’re losing calves in Pincher Creek. It’s a big, big, big area.”
Though snowstorms are common in April, multiple nights of -20 C or colder are not, and they’ve wreaked havoc on calves.
“On those cold days, if you weren’t to the cow within 10 to 12 minutes, your calf was frozen,” said Balog. “The death losses are big. I’m scared to predict.
“A lot of people weren’t ready with feed. A lot of people don’t have the facilities to calve in this tough of weather. The cold has lingered on. There’s no dry spots. It’s just made people really, really work hard.”
Calves are coming thick and fast on Charlie Christie’s ranch near Trochu. The chair of Alberta Beef Producers is calving out 390 head and they started giving birth at the end of March.
The cold in that region has taken its toll as well, he said.
“Usually we start calving towards the end of the thaw. We don’t have this cold weather or this much snow left. Usually the nights are -5 C or -10 C maybe, and the days are plus 5 C, plus 10 C. Instead this year, our days were -5 C or -10 C and our nights were -25 C to -30 C.”
Christie credits his calving crew for keeping losses to a minimum but even so, they’ve been higher than average. And most calves have to be brought in, dried off and warmed after birth, so the labour and animal handling has been intense.
“This year, every calf went through the barn to get them out of the cold and the wind and get them started, and then the poor guys, we had to kick them out and bring another guy in, so they never got to stay very long,” said Christie.
His herd has gone through more feed as a result of the cold, and he has also noted the shortage of straw as many producers sought bedding to combat the extra snow and wet conditions.
Those same conditions are keeping cow herds closer together and usually closer to home, which increases the risk of illnesses like scours and pneumonia.
Balog said this difficult calving season is taking an emotional as well as financial toll on producers and the persistent bad weather isn’t helping.
“When you try so hard and when you lose so many calves, it just takes the fight out of you, the soul out of you,” he said. “When these guys go out and they find five dead calves in the morning and they’re trying so hard, it just takes so much out of them. Mother Nature is still the boss.”
The one silver lining is that the snow has vastly improved the moisture situation in an area that suffered drought last year.
“It’s too bad we’ve got to pay for it in sweat and tears,” said Christie, “but you’ve got to have grass to feed these guys too and we were in no shape to grow grass.”
Added Nelson: “It will be a few years to pay for this winter, but we’ll hope for good prices. And we’ll hope for good moisture. That will help a lot if we have good grass, when it comes. And it has good potential.”