Winter on the RanchMar 09, 2023 12:18PM ● By Allison Eliason
They say weather is a pretty superficial topic to discuss, but I think when you have been knee deep in snow for as long as Oneida County has, it really hits a little deeper, especially when your livelihood is directly impacted by what Mother Nature throws at you. Already a full week into March and the snow still knee deep, a spring thaw just can’t come fast enough.
Just last week, I was sharing some of our current weather woes with my dad, telling him about taking hay down to the cows in the middle of a blizzard, how the road was covered in drifts and if we stopped we would have likely been stuck for the night, and how after riding around looking for cold calves left in the snow, my coveralls were so stiff they could nearly stand up on their own. He patiently listened and would say things like “I know how hard it is” and “we keep praying for you” and “hang in there.” And as he did I couldn’t help but think back to some of those brutal winter experiences he was speaking from.
Anytime we talk about hard winter weather or my dad sees an intense storm rolling in, there is a little shudder that rolls down his spine that takes him back to a particular winter that, for him, has never been topped. To this day, he lays awake at night when he hears the wind howling on a cold winter calving night as those memories come creeping right back in.
My dad always starts the story at the Montana Winter Fair held in Bozeman in January 1989. The fair is held in the quiet of January to celebrate “Montana’s world-class agricultural production and enviable western way of life” before the busy calving season begins. As they had done in the past, my dad and brothers had taken a few bulls to show in the livestock contest to do a little marketing and networking. Over the few days of the fair, the buzz of a big winter storm moving in from the north was all anyone could talk about.
It wasn’t like it is today with everyone on social media sharing the pending storm or the weatherman dissecting the storm in a million different ways, with all sorts of charts and graphs and maps to illustrate the severity of the storm. They knew there was a storm coming but had no idea it would be as devastating as it would turn out to be. Slowly, stories started trickling in from the various northern ranchers. They were talking of plummeting temperatures, easily dropping 50-60 degrees in an hour and accompanied by snow and gusting winds.
Knowing that there was work to be done on the ranch, dad and the boys left the fair before it was over and began the long drive home. Dad vividly remembers following the painted yellow dashes as he drove down the middle of the freeway because it was really the only way to know where the road was with all the snow coming down. As they drove the last 30 miles, they were the only vehicle as the roads had been closed ahead and behind them. They got home in the early evening, checked to make sure everything was ok and then settled in for the night, not knowing the hell that was about to break loose the next day.
Dad’s first priority the next morning was to get the herd moved down into the willows where they would have more protection. Unfortunately, those stubborn cows would not move. They tried everything from chasing them on horseback and 4 wheelers to luring them with the feed truck but nothing worked. Trying to do the next best thing, dad had the guys feed the herd below the haystack where they could get some sort of windbreak. Not having an enclosed tractor back then, they would feed for a bit and then go warm up in the truck and then head back out to feed some more.
As the day wore on, the temperatures continued to drop and winds picked up. They were hearing devastating stories of pipes carrying water from the hot springs freezing over, church and school boilers freezing, and even a train careening off its tracks as it barrelled into Helena because the brakes had frozen over. They had even heard of some ranchers taking their prize winning bulls home from the fair and finding them frozen dead in their trailers when they got home. The winds in some places were approaching 100 miles an hour, peeling roofs off and blowing trains off the tracks. The front that was settling in would be nothing short of insane. Heading in the house that first night, dad remembers trying to get Tigger, his loyal ranch dog, to come in the house and out of the cold, something he normally refused to do. Tigger gave him one last look, turned back, and ran off and was never seen again.
For days the cold and wind kept on and it was all dad could do to keep the cows warm, fed, and the water open. When there was a small break in the wind, they were finally able to move the herd to a more protected area. My brothers talk about how when they headed out, they opted to ride their horses bareback in order to take advantage of the heat coming off their mount’s back. Despite everything they were doing, day after day they would find cows with frozen ears, bobbed tails and even frozen teats.
Eventually, the harsh weather let up but just as soon as the temperatures rebounded from the brutal cold front, a second storm, nearly just as bad, came through. And then, like some awful sort of deja vu, a third storm came through just a couple of weeks later.
At this stage, it wasn’t just grown cows they were trying to keep warm. The herd had begun calving when the latter storms rolled through, adding an even greater challenge. It almost seemed impossible to keep a newborn calf from freezing to the ground before he had a chance. The heavy cows, those ready to calve any day, were kept close to the house so they could keep a constant watch over them and give those new babies the best fighting chance they could.
With the series of storms, their fierce temperatures and blustering winds, my dad recalls weeks on end of coming in for the night knowing two hard truths. First, that he had done all he could do that day. He was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted as he spent every waking hour working and worrying to keep the animals alive. The second hard truth was that he knew his efforts still wouldn’t be enough for some. That despite all the work, there would still be calves that would die from the cold and that some cows just couldn’t keep warm. And that every morning would inevitably bring the answer to the question of just how bad the night was.
Of course the cold eventually let up and they learned to move on from the losses they had, but the memories and experiences of those brutally hard days are still as clear and as real as the day they happened. I don’t share these stories asking for a pity party or a woe-is-me kind of moment. I share these stories so people can understand just what it takes for farmers and ranches around the country to raise the very vital livestock and crops for families around the world. We all have our hard days, where all we can do is keep putting out a little feed, keep bringing in the cold calves and keep giving our all when we know it probably won’t be enough. We keep doing it because giving up just isn’t an option.