CHEYENNE – According to the National Weather Service, “prolonged bitter cold” and wind chill advisories have been issued for the bulk of eastern Wyoming, including Laramie County, and the Nebraska panhandle. Accompanying this blast of arctic air will be some snow.
While most people will ride this chilly blast out perched on the sofa in front of the television in a warm house, area livestock producers, just beginning calving season, are bracing for a rough go, perhaps including financial losses through calves lost to the cold and snow.
According to Aviva Braun, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Cheyenne, the current cold front is a strong Arctic cold air mass coming down from Canada. It’s currently hovering over the U.S-Canada border, slowly sliding south and west as time goes by.
Braun watched this front move in earlier this week, she said, witnessing temperatures fall from 45 to 32 degrees in just half an hour. She noted a -6 degrees Fahrenheit temperature reading Friday morning at the Cheyenne weather station.
“West of the Laramie Range is not getting the same impacts as locally,” she said. For example, Dixon Airport in southwest Carbon County reported a temperature of 27 degrees Friday morning.
“This is not La Nina,” Braun said, “which, in the Cheyenne area, would normally produce above-average temperatures, like the beautiful days we had in January. Normals for this time of year would be in the upper 30s and low 40s for a high, teens for a low.”
However, Braun said the entire region would be under the influence of the Arctic air by Sunday, with only southwest Wyoming not feeling its bite.
February’s record low temperature was set in 1899, when the mercury plunged to 45 degrees below zero. Cheyenne’s records, in particular, also came in the late 1800s, with temperatures in the minus teens to 30 below, she said.
“That happened before more so than now,” Braun said.
However, that’s no reason to discount the current situation.
Braun said NWS is concerned about the prolonged nature of this Arctic air mass and the wind chills associated with it. The impact on farmers and livestock producers is of special concern, she said.
“We have more cattle than people in this area, and many ranchers are calving,” she said. “The longevity of this, the snow and the cold and the wind, will have an impact.”
She said it will be hard for adult cattle to handle this kind of weather – cattle, horses and other livestock need to eat more in order to maintain body temperature and survive – let alone a newborn calf that tumbles from the womb wet into snow. Between the cold and wind chilling them, there’s an increased risk of calves dying.
“The impact of this is what we’re warning ranchers about,” Braun said.
Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, is a native of Rock Springs and a lifelong sheep rancher.
“The impact of this weather is that livestock will need to eat more to stay warm,” he said. “This shouldn’t be a major thing (for adult cattle). The concern is that many ranchers have started calving in Laramie County and across the state, so there’s a risk to newborn calves.”
Most ranchers are just getting started calving, Magagna said. Late February and early March is traditionally calving time, although during the last decade, some ranchers have been shifting calving to later in the year. The plus side of this is not having to deal with bad weather, which could make the rancher’s work somewhat easier. But the tradeoff is less money for a lighter-weight calf sold in the fall.
The reason ranchers focus on calving in late February and early March is related to grass, Magagna said.
“If you can get calves with a little age on them and feeding good into good green spring grass, the lush pastures of late spring and early summer, they will put more weight on and be better for market come September, October,” he said.
Most calves sold in the area are yearlings, he continued, who will go to a feedlot to be finished, although the market for grass-fed cattle is expanding.
Ranchers cope with this kind of severe weather by bringing their herds closer to the ranch, so they can keep an eye out for cows about to give birth. This is an arduous task, Magagna said, requiring them to be watching their herds 24/7 throughout calving season.
“Three days (in bad weather) is a long time to be watching calving like this.”
Most livestock producers try to get their calves into sheltered areas. Some larger operations and some small herd owners use indoor facilities, while others get their calves and cows into the shelter of trees to protect them.
Better weather forecasting has helped ranchers anticipate bad weather circumstances, giving them time to prepare for a weather event, Magagna said.
However, the weather and the snow that is coming with it is a dilemma, he said.
“We really do need the moisture,” Magagna said. “We’re in a drastic drought across most of the state. It would be good if we could get a wet spring and lots of rain to green up pastures. But getting snow and the moisture for pastures in the spring is a risk ranchers would probably be willing to take. It’s a dilemma ... you want, we need, moisture. Our snow is really dry. Hope for a good, wet spring.”
According to Assistant State Veterinarian Brad DeGroot, livestock will deal with the arctic temperatures and wind.
While he noted that in such conditions calf mortality and sickness usually go way up, the bottom line is that getting cows and their newborn calves into shelter helps a “tremendous amount,” he said.
Pregnant adult cows, DeGroot said, need to have adequate nutrients before calving, and are particularly vulnerable to bad weather the last couple of weeks of their gestation. It’s hard for the cows to get enough good forage. Low-quality forage will cause pregnant cows to burn fat and muscle in order to maintain body temperatures in extreme cold and wind. Snow makes this even harder. So many ranchers use supplemental feeds to boost nutrients.
Water needs are also critical. Cattle can eat snow for water, but this lowers their body temperature.
As a result, ranchers are charged with maintaining water supplies – breaking ice in troughs and keeping water warm, which helps cattle maintain body temperature. This is especially important during the drought the state is currently experiencing, DeGroot said.
The critical thing for newborn calves is getting dried off after birth.
“It’s pretty hard for a calf to get up and get going after birth,” he said, likening this to coming out of the shower wet into the kind of cold this weekend holds. “But after they are dried off, calves are resilient to the cold.”
“It’s amazing how well cattle do,” DeGroot said. “They’re amazingly resilient. They can function well from temperatures well below zero to 100 degrees.”