FORDVILLE, N.D. -- Ears pricked toward the sounds of Wanda Morstad’s tractor and feed wagon rumbling toward them, black cows, save for the white ring of frost around their muzzles, ambled off of their beds of straw and down the snow-covered hill to their feed bunks in a pasture near Fordville.
As Morstad steered the tractor pulling the wagon down the line of feed bunks, filling them with a sweet, yeasty-smelling blend of chopped straw, wet distillers dried grain, sugar beet pulp and sugar beet tailings, the cows buried their noses in the troughs. Puffs of white billowed from their nostrils when the exhaled breath met the minus 15-degree air.
At the top of the hill, Wanda Morstad's husband, Randy Morstad, filled feed bunks with large round bales of grass hay while Nick Johnson bedded down the cows’ shelter with wheat straw. Then, it was back a mile to the farmyard for the Morstads and Johnson, where they loaded up more feed and bedding for their collective 400 head of cattle. The Morstads own 320 and Johnson, 80.
On frigid winter days like this one, the amount of feed needed to fuel the cattle increases, Randy Morstad said, on Thursday, Jan. 16.
“We’ll feed them at least 10% more,” he said. “If it stays like this, we’ll bump it up even more.”
Amping up the amount of feed helps keep the cows warm. In fact, on Thursday, the cows seemed oblivious to the cold as they alternately dove their muzzles into the feed troughs, raised them to chew the feed and curiously studied the strangers talking to their owners.
Besides increasing their feed, another key to helping the cattle herd weather the subzero temperatures is to make sure the animals are healthy and fit before the cold sets in, Morstad said.
“In this cold, you can’t put weight on them,” Morstad said. “If you have thin cows, you’re in trouble.”
In a couple of months, the cows will be calving, another reason they need to be well-fed and in good condition.
“Our due date is March 23,” Morstad said.
The Morstads and Johnson used to calve in January, but over the years gradually moved it to spring.
“The older I get, the later I calve,” Morstad said, with a laugh.
This is his 40th year raising cattle. He showed cattle in 4-H when he was a youth, and at age 15 bought a cow and had her bred.
“I always liked cattle,” Morstad said.
Owning cattle also makes good economic sense and over the years, the Morstads increased their herd.
During the growing season, the Morstads grow small grains, and raising cattle is a way to diversify the farm into a year-round farming operation, he said.
“It utilizes my time in the off-season. It beats going to town and getting a job,” Morstad said.
Wanda Morstad, a veterinary technician, and Johnson handle herd health, vaccinating and pregnancy testing the cows.
All three owners typically feed the cattle, which helps reduce the amount of time it takes.
“We usually feed the cows first, then we feed the heifers, then the older cows, then the bulls," said Randy Morstad, noting that it is gratifying to know the cattle are well-cared for and aren't suffering from the cold.
“They’re comfortable and content. I take pride in having them in good shape,” Morstad said.
No matter the season, though, he enjoys taking care of the herd.
“I like all aspects of it. Seeing the news ones born. I like haying. Being outside," he said.