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'Checking every two hours': Calving season in Montana made difficult by extreme winter weather

Olivia Lee and an hours-old calf
Posted at 5:21 PM, Feb 24, 2023

BILLINGS — Most of us can't handle being out in the cold weather Billings and surrounding areas have seen this week. But livestock don't have many options, and cattle ranchers have their hands full between birthing calves and keeping the babies alive during calving season.

Olivia Lee is a third-generation cattle rancher. Her grandparents on her father's side bought property south of Billings in 1967. The family ranch, Lee Grain and Livestock, is currently operated by Olivia, her father, her older brother, and her boyfriend. Her preschool-aged son also helps out around the ranch.

“My grandparents, my dad’s parents, they were in Minot, North Dakota. They bought this place in ‘67,” Lee said on Thursday. “I went with my dad when I was a little girl and would help come up here into the barn when he would check heffers. So I’ve been involved with cattle since I was a little girl."

But calving season has them all busy, especially this year.

“Me and my boyfriend are checking every two hours. Go out with the side-by-side, spotlight, see if anybody’s calving or already has a calf on the ground. And then we bring the calf in here," Lee said, referencing the barn. "We have a heated, insulated part. That’s heated with propane. So depending on how chilled the calf is, we have a heater box, warming box, that we put them in. And then once they’re warmed up, ready to be with their mom and get something to drink, then we put them together into a stall.”

Lee explained calving season in the northern states can be difficult.

“If you’re in the North and you have cows and you’re calving in the winter, you’re losing calves and doing your best to keep as many alive as you can,” Lee said. "But as long as you have a warm spot for them, that’ll help keep them alive."

This isn't a new problem for Montana cattle ranchers.

Trestin Feagler is an agriculture agent for the Yellowstone County extension of Montana State University and also grew up around cattle. She knows some of the struggles first-hand.

“If you’re calving around this time of the year towards the tail-end of the winter, you’ll deal with snow storms. We get our spring snow storms and cold snaps like we’re having right now,” Feagler said on Friday. “There’s always challenges when it comes to weather."

Feagler explained there are a variety of challenges to cattle ranching during this time of the year due to the weather.

"Last year, we had a storm. I think it was maybe April, in Eastern Montana. Specifically like southeastern Montana into the Dakotas. That did bring quite a few calf deaths. More than you’d typically see in a year," Feagler said. "But the reason for that was not just because it was so cold, but because we were seeing just massive amounts of snow and everything drifted. And so a lot of producers couldn’t even access their cattle to get in and retrieve calves that were being born. And they were pretty much stuck out there."

And on top of challenges getting to the animals, Feagler said other obstacles often arise from the weather.

"So today it’s -4 (degrees), but tomorrow we have a high of 40, and then it’s a high of 45. And when we get really in big danger is when we have these big swings in temperature," Feagler said. "It actually reduces the immune system of our calves. And unfortunately, that’s when they get sick, and they get things like pneumonia and we see some calf losses from that. So a lot of times even when the weather warms up doesn’t mean we’re necessarily out of danger quite yet."

But Feagler also had some tips to offer for cattle ranchers.

“First and foremost, increase the amount of feed you’re giving to your livestock. Sometimes we can see the nutritional needs of our cows and calves go up by 50% depending on what the temperature is. Anything below zero, that’s when we’re going to see this huge uptick in needing more feed to keep them warm," Feagler said. "In addition to that, having a really good vaccination program can help protect your calves, as well as having your cows in good health. And then providing some dry and warm place for cows to go if they need shelter as well."

Increasing feed, vaccinating, and having a dry, warm place for cows to go. Three things Olivia Lee is already doing with her cattle.

"We are feeding the cows more. Extra hay to keep them warm," Lee said. "We’re also chopping ice morning and night, making sure that they have available water when they need it.”

But even with all of the challenges, Lee still finds joy in ranching.

“My favorite part is definitely the calving. We raise all of our cows, you know the cows are born here, raised here, and they start having their own babies," Lee said. "The calf that was born this morning at four, that’s a third-generation (artificially inseminated) calf. So it’s so fun to see daughters out of our cows become mothers.”