This time of year, Kristen Burgess anticipates sleepless nights and long days on her family’s Nebraska cattle ranch. Beyond that she avoids predictions. No two calving seasons are alike.
“Sometimes our first-calf heifers have smooth deliveries, sometimes we have to pull over half their calves. Sometimes we have 20 sets of twins, sometimes we have two. Sometimes we have all healthy calves, sometimes we’re doctoring something every day. My dad’s in his 70s. He’s been doing this his whole life, and he still says he sees and learns something new every season.”
February brought a historic cold streak, freezing pipes and killing power across the central and southern United States. Temperatures plummeted 20 to 35 degrees below average. The storm hit in the most sensitive time of year for many ranchers. Most plan for a controlled calving season, usually in early spring. Calves born earlier have more time to put on weight, netting higher prices come sale time.
Courtenay DeHoff was raised on a ranch in Kansas and now lives in Dallas. She’s a TV host, speaker, and podcaster who focuses on ranching and agricultural issues. She says the weather usually isn’t a concern this time of year. “Ranchers in many parts of Texas had never seen temps so cold. Water tanks were freezing in minutes and ranchers were tasked with finding ways to get fresh water to animals. So many people in both rural and urban areas have severe damage from broken water pipes that blew and flooded homes. The last I read this storm is projected to be the costliest natural disaster in Texas history, surpassing Hurricane Harvey.”
For southern ranchers who don’t own the infrastructure needed to calve in freak subzero storms, widespread power grid failures made a tough job almost impossible. Northern ranchers, accustomed to cold weather calving, have to rely on heated barns to keep vulnerable calves alive in extreme temperatures.
Ranchhand Jake Zielke makes his living during the winter delivering calves in rough weather. On the Wyoming and Montana ranches where he cowboys, cattle give birth in cold that could take the skin off his face in minutes. One winter in Southern Wyoming, living on a sheep camp with poor insulation, the temperature fell to 67 degrees below zero.
“I kept all my layers on and I got inside my bedroll where I had four or five blankets, and I shoved both of my dogs down there too. But that’s just surviving. You’re not comfortable.”
Jake is finishing up a two-month stint on a ranch outside of Billings, Montana. During the day, ranching families manage their normal chores, feed the cows, and keep an eye on expectant mamas. As soon as a cow gives birth, she’s moved with her calf to a heated barn. Jake says its like a maternity ward. Every cow has her own sheltered space with her calf; an important bonding time.
When the sun sets and temperatures drop even lower, a night calver like Jake takes over. His uniform is nothing fancy: the wild rag he pulled out of storage in November, a wool Scotch cap, waterproof boots, a sheepskin-lined denim jacket, and a big winter beard. He’d rather spend money on quality bottom layers than top. Every year he buys a new set of Kinco leather gloves, a tip he lifted from oil field workers in Wyoming. He has a Gore-Tex jacket and overalls in the truck. When cotton is his outer layer, he could end a shift with 30 pounds of ice hanging off his arms and legs. The waterproof stuff is better. Jake does his rounds on the hour, looking for newborns or cows struggling to give birth.
“We don’t call vets for pretty much anything, even C-sections. We do about everything ourselves.”
Sometimes Jake finds a newborn calf 30 minutes old with ears already frozen solid. All he can do is get the calf into his heated truck. It happens to people, too. Last week one of the guys on the ranch was outside for just 15 minutes before a quarter-size chunk of skin on his cheek turned purple with frostbite. After a particularly cold winter, Kristen’s Nebraska herd is sometimes conspicuously short a few ears and tails.
“We had one calf born in the storm last week whose mother wasn’t cut in with our ‘heavies,’ and he was born out in a meadow,” she says. “My dad found him when he was feeding hay the next day, and it’s truly a miracle he didn’t freeze. Fortunately, his mother had him in a little more sheltered area, which gave him some insulation for his feet and legs. We’ll see how the other extremities end up.”
Kristen is the fourth generation of Burgesses to run cattle in the Sandhills of Nebraska. A software engineer by trade, she codes at night between rounds. Equipment failure kept her busy during the storm. Old pickups don’t want to start, tractors struggle to function. Power blackouts killed electric wells and low wind rendered windmill-powered wells useless. She used generators to keep everything running.
Watching the hardships ranchers faced during the storm, Courtenay’s heart broke. She wrote a post on her Instagram. “I just wish the rest of the world had a better understanding of what days like today mean for farmers and ranchers,” she wrote. “EMS cannot get to rural areas in weather like this. Every move is a gamble. Mentally days like today can break them. Animals are dying, the water isn’t flowing, and it’s getting harder by the day to cope.” Her post quickly went viral in the ag community.
Ranchers will tell you stories about giving newborn calves mouth-to-mouth, bringing freezing calves into homes and pickup trucks at 3 a.m.—holding them close, trying to keep them warm and breathing—tears over a calf that didn’t make it. They’ll neglect to mention their own exhaustion and cold.
“This isn’t just an industry, it’s a livelihood.” Jake says. “It’s not like farmers work 9-to-5 and go home. That’s the biggest part that I think is missed. Unless you live and work here, there’s no way of seeing just how much work is put into it and how much ranchers really care. I think any rancher has a deep, sincere love for animals or they would not be doing this.”
Although 92-98% of Americans eat meat, most will never raise a beef cow. They’ll buy their protein in cellophane and cardboard. The label won’t mention how the steer lived through the winter storm of 2021—whether a rancher crawled across ice to rescue him, or bottlefed him in his kitchen, or held him against his chest when the power went out. To anyone outside of ranching, it may seem counterintuitive that the men and women responsible for the dirty work of feeding a nation have a greater appreciation for the value of an animal’s life than any consumer. America has never been more removed from the food we eat. Ranchers and farmers are relegated to the outskirts, suburbs and cities are agricultural deserts, long-haul truck drivers connect the two. Wrapped in clear plastic, there is no sign of the struggle and sacrifice. But there is no joy, either.
“When you just have got a calf out of a cow, that’s a pretty special thing to be a part of,” Jake says. From his pickup truck, he can see the lights of four other ranch headquarters, all of them in the thick of calving. When his work in Montana is done, Jake will head south to a ranch in Wyoming and start it all over again. His dog sits in the passenger seat, his wild rag will stay on until May. He has long, cold nights ahead.
“To bring life into this world…” Jake’s voice trails off, and I finish his sentence for him. “It never gets old, does it?”
“It never gets old.”