This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Josh Geigle works on a ranch 17 miles north of Wall.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — April blizzards are nothing new to South Dakota farmers and ranchers, but the timing and location of each storm creates a variety of challenges especially when calves are being born.
On Tuesday, most of western, central and northeastern South Dakota was in a blizzard warning with heavy snow and gusty winds expected through Wednesday. Two cattle producers spoke with KELOLAND News about the challenges created by this latest version of a South Dakota April blizzard.
“There’s been a few of these good April blizzards and the good thing about these April blizzards is they’re packed full of moisture,” Josh Geigle said. “They’re really what get our growing season tapped off. Especially after coming out of the drought, we’ve had the last couple of years.”
Geigle, who works on his family ranch 17 miles north of Wall, said he’s happy for the moisture in western South Dakota. You can see the amount of snow on his ranch before noon Tuesday in the photos below.
He acknowledged there’s plenty of added hardship the blizzard creates for other cattle producers in the middle of calving. Geigle said his calves aren’t expected until April 19 but noted some mother cows may need extra attention during this blizzard.
“Every Ranch is just a little bit different. And so you adjust your calving period to fit what works best for your ranch,” Geigle said. “The timing is not the greatest for those guys that are calving, but we all know in the ranching world that sometimes it takes a big spring blizzard to make the rest of the year a good year and you do what you can with it and you work.”
More than 225 miles to the northeast of Geigle, cattle rancher Troy Hadrick is experiencing his second blizzard in less than a week.
Unlike Geigle, Hadrick is smack in the middle of his calving season on his ranch near Faulkton in north-central South Dakota. He said his ranch was still covered mostly in snow when Friday’s blizzard dropped 21 inches of snow and there’s been 5 to 6 additional inches of snow by noon Tuesday. You can see a photo from his ranch Tuesday in the photo below.
“Hopefully the snow doesn’t get too deep and we can continue to do our best to take care of them,” Hadrick said. “We really only had a couple of days between that last blizzard and this one to try and get dug out what we could and get prepared for this one. The timing of these blizzards with our calving was pretty unfortunate for us.”
Hadrick said his fear was conditions getting too bad to make reaching his cattle impossible.
“They’re locked up in a little four or five acre trap with windbreak. Yesterday, we spent all day kind of setting up some extra temporary windbreaks, putting down new bedding and doing everything we can,” Hadrick said. “Having newborns hitting the ground in this kind of weather is pretty tough on them. We got to be right there and watch them really closely.”
Wind, cold hardest on calves
Both Geigle and Hadrick said keeping the cows and calves out of the wind is the first priority.
“It just doesn’t take too much in these conditions for things to go wrong and get chilled down pretty fast and then we got to obviously intervene,” Hadrick said. “We got a couple of calves this morning that were a little cold so we’ve actually got them inside the barn getting warmed up and we’ll have to reunite them with their mothers probably after the storm’s done.”
Geigle said ranchers don’t want a lot of cattle packed in barns because it can cause ventilation problems and harm the cows. He said well fed cattle can weather harsh conditions and there’s a variety of strategies to assist calves.
“Some strategies are as you let the mom lick the calf off a little bit and then you grab him and you take him to the barn and get them warmed up,” Geigle said. “You prepare yourself, you prepare your animals and you trust in the Lord that he’ll get you through it.”
South Dakota State University Extension State Climatologist Laura Edwards shared how the Comprehensive Climate Index creates dangerous conditions for newborn and adult livestock. The CCI was developed by animal scientists to look at how different environments created stress on cattle. Any CCI below 20 degrees is hard on calves.
Comparing other bad blizzards
Hadrick recalled an April blizzard in 2019 but added that blizzard hit when there was no existing snow depth.
“This winter we just have never been able to hardly melt any snow up here,” Hadrick said. “We’ve been white since the beginning of December. We’re really going to be fighting the mud when this stuff starts to melt because there’s a lot of it.”
Geigle remembers the Atlas Blizzard of October 2013 that resulted in thousands of cattle dying after more than 20 inches fell between three days. He said there were a lot of things different about that early October blizzard compared to an early April blizzard.
He said the Atlas Blizzard hit after warm, 80-degree days just a few days before. He said rain before the blizzard also kept many cattle wet and cattle had not grown winter hair coats.
“There was just several things that came together on that Atlas Blizzard to make it the disaster it was,” Geigle said. “I would say this storm is nowhere close to that. This is a serious storm don’t get me wrong, but it’s not an Atlas (Blizzard) that’s for sure. And we’re sure thankful for that.”