Preparing and handling winter's wrath
OACOMA — Braving bitter temperatures, biting wind, boot-sucking mud, knee-high snow, caring for a herd of cattle isn't everyone's idea of fun — let alone romance. Yet, with strong backgrounds provided by long-time ranching families, Jay and Amy Blum wouldn't live any other way.
"Neither of us is above working in town when times get tough. We've both done it and will probably again, but ranching is in our blood, in our hearts," Amy said.
The couple's appreciation for ranch life is why they've chosen to raise their four children — twins Piper and Chance, 9, Chisum, 7, and Cyrus, 5 — as the ranch's third generation willing to brave the elements.
"Do you like to eat every day?" Jay said. "Well, so do cattle. No matter the weather or day on the calendar, we have to get out there."
Prepping for winter
The Blums are not strangers to winter weather, which South Dakota farmers and ranchers are in the midst of preparing for and starting to endure. After all, more than 50 years ago, Jay's father, John Blum, and uncle, Bart Blum, moved the ranch operation to its current location six miles north of Oacoma, in the middle of a snowstorm. It was a move they made on horseback, when the luxury of riding inside a heated tractor cab did not exist yet.
Although technology can help deal with cold temperatures, it doesn't delete winter's presence for ranchers like Blum. A South Dakota winter can be like an unpredictable dinner guest — showing up when and how it pleases. It's why Jay's rule of thumb is to have the ranch prepared for winter by Nov. 1.
"We are never really ready for that first snowstorm because you're always pushing to get more done, but there's always the same basic stuff to tackle. We all work together to have it handled," he said.
There's hay to haul, bunks to clean and organize, and yards to get ready. There are shelterbelts to monitor and man-made wind breaks to repair. There are crops like corn, sorghum and oats to harvest and use as the family's winter grazing cattle require.
However, sometimes ranchers are given a year like 2016, when the weather remains mostly mild through October and November. The weather lends more time to get tasks done in preparation for the freeze, but it also brings a longing for the freeze from ranchers like Blum.
"Mud is the worst for us and the cattle — trying to move around in that stuff when the ground is so wet," Jay said. "It's never going to dry up, so you just hope it freezes."
Working in the thick of winter
When the longed-for freeze finally occurs, it's a welcomed sight for the rancher to walk through a yard and not track it back with him to his home. But, frozen ground also means freezing temperatures.
"There are probably better ways to get your blood going in the morning, but being slapped by cold gets a guy moving, It's not always an easy temperature in the morning," Jay said with a laugh.
But, as he said, the work doesn't wait. Chores must be done. There are constants they know they'll have to do. They'll check every yard to monitor cattle and shelter health, stop to make sure the cattle's drinking water hasn't frozen overnight, and of course, feed the cattle.
"To oversimplify it, we know we will get up and do chores every day. That sounds neat and like something you can tie up with a bow and be done by noon, but that's rarely how it is," Amy said. "Things almost never go as planned."
This is because there are many unknown variables. While the Blum family goes about the regular chores, they'll encounter a sick cow or calf. Maybe the dropping temperatures cause a tractor to gel up, which stops feeding in its tracks. The cattle are restless because they feel a storm on its way, so they break through a fence. Yesterday's work of digging out a shelter has proven pointless after a shift in wind has drifted snow in, so they must dig out the other side.
"Scooping snow is always a really nice workout for all of us," joked Amy.
But, it's those harsh winter variables that are just part of the job.
"There are a lot of different ways your day could go and you never know which way it'll go until it's happening," Jay said. "But, all the same, we need winter."
It's why he calls winter a "double-edged sword."
"If you don't have snow in winter, you don't have mud in the spring, which means you don't have ground moisture needed to grow grass and crops," Jay said. "We'd just prefer a brown Christmas and heavy snow in March."
Winter variables and misconceptions
Another unknown winter variable is the length of time the season stays until spring begins erasing it with warmer temperatures and sunshine. Sometimes, winter might stick around through March and into April, or present a fluke snowstorm in May.
According to Jay, it's not uncommon for winter-like weather to overlap with an important spring activity on the ranch: calving. The Blums begin calving heifers around April 1. Heifers and cows have their calves in open quarters as a planned management practice. The space helps reduce stress, confusion, and disease for both mothers and calves.
"We plan for April and May calves to avoid the worst of weather," Blum said. "One good thing about a spring snow is that it doesn't last long!"
But, sometimes as soon as a mother has found her spot, she must be moved indoors due to an approaching storm. Adult cattle have a body temp of 101.5 degrees and have thick hair on tough hide to withstand the cold, but a new baby calf isn't completely ready for such elements yet.
"We've talked about moving calving later in April, but we run into farming. So, we've come to expect at least one snowstorm during calving. We prepare for and deal with it the best we can," Jay said.
The Blums then must get the mother cow into a barn and do whatever they can to provide safety for the mother and calf. It's this type of care they practice with all their cattle year-round. Unfortunately, raising cattle also means sometimes watching them die despite every effort to save the animal.
"I sometimes feel like a doctor, because I'll try everything to save an animal, and just when you think you've got him back, an overnight cold front moves in and you lose him," Jay said. "That's the tough truth about this business."
Outsiders might view a cow in the field during winter as the ranchers acting cruel, and question why they are not in a barn. But, Amy says these are range cattle. They were designed for South Dakota. They were designed for cold temperatures.
"Cattle have instincts and generally take care to get themselves where they need to be for comfort and safety. This is our job, and we take pride in it, so we work hard to provide adequate shelter, feed, and care," Amy said. "But, when we look at a cow, it's not just money. It's a legacy. It's a way of life — it's our way of life."
Because, sooner or later the sunshine will return. The winds won't burn as fiercely. The snow will melt, making a muddy, wet mess before it dries.
"Ah, yes," Jay said. "Another one of those double-edged swords."