Kansas ranchers brave icy cold to care for their cows

Some folks jokingly give Todd Miller, a Reno County farmer and rancher, a hard time about fussing so much over his cows when they're calving during harsh winter days and nights.

That includes his 21-year-old son, Tye.

"My boy says I'm too close to them," Miller said. "I get accused of that all the time.

"I like my cows."

So this week he was out in the sub-zero temperatures around the clock looking after his cows and trying to keep their newborn calves alive.

When possible, he brings cows into the barn to give birth. For those out in the open, he tries to make sure they drop the calves on a patch of hay.

His only break Thursday night, when the temperature was minus 13, was to take an hour-long nap in his pickup.

Even with that, he said, he has lost six calves.

"That wind is a killer," Miller said. "A calf on the ground in the snow can be dead in 30 minutes. Lost one in 10 minutes Tuesday night."

This weekend's warmer temperatures should bring some relief for cattle producers around the state. But last week's snowstorm and then this week's blast have taken a toll.

Greg Pickett, a rancher in Elk County in southeastern Kansas, has 240 spring calving cows, and about 60 calves have been born.

He knows he's already lost six calves, but those are only the ones he's been able to find in the rugged terrain of canyons, gnarled trees and brush.

"We'll probably have a 25 percent death loss," Pickett said. His normal loss of spring calves is 1 percent.

As soon as daylight broke Thursday, and with the temperature still hovering around minus 21, Pickett got in his pickup and plowed through eight inches of snow to look for new calves.

He later searched on horseback — the only way he could navigate through the tangled brush — but couldn't find any calves. It has him worried.

"Back in the brush, I don't have a clue how many we've lost," Pickett said.

He did find a calf born in the pasture Thursday afternoon. He brought it into the bunkhouse overnight to warm up, then took it back outside to its mama Friday morning.

Mostly good instincts

January and February are the traditional months for spring calving.

The rewards can be high. Some producers say spring calves can grow to be bigger than those born in the fall.

Many cow-calf producers also grow crops and have ground work to do in the spring. They want to get calving out of the way.

"What they're going for now — $700 to $800 when weaned — that's a pretty good paycheck, if you can keep them alive," Miller said.

It has been a particular struggle this year.

"My dad is 74," Pickett said, "and he doesn't remember a time like this."

Brad McCurry raises Black Angus cattle north of Mount Hope with two brothers and a cousin. They have about 650 cows and split their operation between fall and spring calving.

For the past two weeks, the McCurrys have lost only one calf to the elements. But it's taken a lot of work.

"If I hit the lottery, I'm going to Arizona," McCurry said with a laugh.

A former paramedic with Sedgwick County, he's started calves on IVs to keep them alive.

Since a cow's normal body temperature is 101 degrees, McCurry said, "It's quite a shock to the system when that calf pops out into the snow and it's 22 below.

"As long as we can get them out of the elements and wind off them, they'll do pretty good."

A critical part of the process is for the cow to lick her calf dry and for the calf to get on its feet and start nursing. Those early shots of colostrum from mama's milk gives the calf a burst of energy and gets it moving around and warming up.

"Those old girls have pretty good mothering instincts," McCurry said.

Not so much for the heifers — first-time mothers. They require special attention.

The McCurrys have a lean-to next to a barn for their pregnant heifers. The hay is already on the ground.

But that doesn't mean things always go as planned.

A heifer was set up to give birth in the lean-to the other day, then she decided to go out in the snow.

"She dropped her calf, then came back in the barn," McCurry said.

The calf died out in the snow.

When possible, producers try to spread round bales of hay for cows gathered along a tree line.

"I'll give most cows pretty good credit," Miller said. "But like most other things, some of them have a screw loose. They'll wander away from the hay and drop the calves out there in the wind and the snow.

"You just have to try to be there to help them out."

And that means 24/7.

"You just don't have time to stay home," Miller said. "A calf isn't going to survive out there too long."

Taking it personally

Beyond the economics, Miller takes looking after his 230 cows personally. He figures he knows almost all of them by their ear-tag numbers.

"I can look over there and say, 'Well, there's 98,' " he said.

One of his favorites is known as 0-15. She's 11 years old and has had 15 calves over the past nine years. She's had six sets of twins, including a set this year.

"They're all special," Miller said, "but she's a special cow."

Even his son, Tye, admitted the other day that there won't be a sale barn in 0-15's future. They'll let her live out the rest of her days on the farm and then bury her there.

"Some guys are just in it for the money and don't take care of their herds," Miller said.

"I like my cows."