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Calving calamity: North Dakota cattle losses rival those of '97

Newborns rest in the calving barn on the Scott Olerud ranch in McLeod, N.D. David Samson / The Forum

Sometime between 3 and 6 on a recent morning, one of Scott Olerud's newborn calves stumbled down a mound, fell into a pool of snow-melted water and drowned in the dark.

"We hate losing calves. But no matter how careful we are, we're always going to lose a few," said Olerud, who checks his cattle at least once every three hours in calving season.

This spring, however, Olerud and other North Dakota producers aren't losing just a few calves.

They're losing a lot.

"We estimate cattle losses rival those of 1997," said Jim Jost, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official in Fargo.

That year, 91,458 adult cattle and calves were reported killed in spring blizzards and flooding.

So far this spring, 91,000 cattle - 19,000 adult cattle and 72,000 calves - have died, according to an estimate by the USDA and the North Dakota State University Extension Service.

Ranchers blame months of bad weather:

* Last fall's heavy rains soaked into hay and reduced its nutritional value, weakening pregnant cows over winter.

* The long, cold winter stressed cows preparing to give birth this spring.

* Severe storms and record flooding this spring led to far more sickness and death than usual among newborn calves.

The estimated 91,000 dead cattle and calves were worth about $55 million, using figures from Tim Petry, NDSU Extension livestock economist.

The adult cattle were worth roughly $650 each and the calves would have sold this fall for $600 each, he estimated.

A federal disaster program - details of which have yet to be determined - ultimately will compensate ranchers for some of their loss, Petry said.

Cattle producers typically lose about 3 to 5 percent of their calf crop each year.

North Dakota cattlemen - who have about one-quarter of 2009 calves still to be born - already have lost 8 percent of this year's crop, if the USDA/NDSU Extension Service estimate is right.

Some individual producers have been hurt worse than the statewide numbers indicate, Petry said.

For those hit hardest, "This is disastrous," he said.

Big deal in state

The Red River Valley, struck with record flooding, has relatively few cattle.

But cold and storms in central and western North Dakota, where most of the state's cattle are located, have killed and weakened cows and newborn calves.

"It's a rough year," said Jack Reich, a Zap cattleman and president of the state Stockmen's Association.

Losses would be even higher without recent warm, dry weather, said Charlie Stoltenow, NDSU Extension veterinarian.

Spring calving, which begins in late February and runs through late May, is a big deal in North Dakota.

Last spring, 920,000 calves - or roughly three for every two state residents - were born in the state.

In Minnesota, about 840,000 calves were born last spring.

Officials with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Agriculture haven't estimated how many cattle have been lost in the state.

Most of Minnesota avoided the worst of the severe weather that hit North Dakota this spring, said Ted Reichmann, a Villard, Minn., cattleman.

He's president of the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association.

Minnesota cattle producers haven't had an easy spring, Reichmann said.

"But overall, it's not been as bad as in North Dakota," he said.

Many Minnesota cattle producers are worried about running short of feed, he said.

North Dakota officials also report that some ranchers are low on feed.

That's partly because floodwaters have isolated some areas where feed is kept, said Brian Zimprich, Ransom County Extension agent.

Ranchers need new grass to begin growing quickly, he and others say.

Sick cattle common

Casselton Veterinary Service has seen an above-average number of sick cattle and calves, Dr. Brad Batholomay said.

Flooding has worsened the problem, often making it more difficult to reach cattle, he said.

The New Salem Veterinary Clinic also is seeing more sick cows and calves than usual, Dr. Margo Kunz said.

New Salem is 40 miles west of Bismarck-Mandan, which was hit with heavy spring blizzards.

Both pneumonia and scours, or diarrhea, are more common than normal this spring, Kunz said.

Calves are about 74 percent water at birth. Losing bodily fluids from scours can lead to dehydration and even death.

Sick calves that survive may not gain as much weight this summer, making them less valuable when they're sold, she said.

Keith Cavett - a 59-year-old Nome cattleman who has been in the cattle business his entire life - said this spring was even worse than the one in 1997.

His family's purebred cattle business, Prairie Pride Angus, has rescheduled its annual bull sale twice because of the weather.

The event is now planned for May 7.

Cavett, who has relatives in Fargo, said he knows urban residents have also suffered.

"We (cattle producers) don't want to sound like crybabies. It's been a tough time for everyone," he said.

Olerud, 49, has ranched at McLeod, about 50 miles southwest of Fargo-Moorhead, his entire life.

He said his operation did all it could to hold down losses this spring, including giving cattle extra feed to help offset cold weather.

Even so, his ranch - on which 550 cows will give birth - already has lost twice as many calves as normal this spring to cold, storms and standing water.

He said he isn't counting on any federal disaster compensation and that his insurance will cover few, if any, losses.

Olerud, who has helped to fight flooding this spring in nearby Lisbon, said he realizes flooding has affected most state residents.

"I'm not saying we have it worse than anyone else. I'm just saying it's going to be really hard to make any money with cattle this year," he said.

Sheep, horses also affected by weather

Cattle weren't the only livestock hurt by bad weather this spring.

According to preliminary estimates by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and North Dakota State University, the state


+ 2,500 sheep.

+ 180 horses.

+ A relatively small number of turkeys.

It's unclear what the damage was in Minnesota.

Neither the Minnesota Department of Agriculture nor the USDA has an estimate.

Minnesota and North Dakota livestock producers are urged to document their losses and report them to the Farm Service Agency, which is part of the USDA.

The federal livestock indemnity program eventually will compensate producers for part of their losses due to adverse weather.

Rules for the program haven't been finalized.