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Severe winter weather causes concerns for Oklahoma farmers during calving season

Cattle getting extra feed during the winter storm in February 2021.
Oklahoma State Agricultural Communications Services
Cattle getting extra feed during the winter storm in February 2021.

Josh Emerson normally has about 300 cows and between 150 and 200 yearlings on his ranch near Checotah, Oklahoma.

Although the state is in the middle of the spring calving season, Emerson’s herd is nearing the end of its season. With the recent winter weather, farms, ranchers and producers like Emerson brace for the impact on calves and pregnant cows. The current winter weather is not expected to be as severe or long as the winter storm in February 2021, but preparation is still necessary.

Emerson said there are a number of things producers can do, like laying out hay and windbreaks to brace for winter weather’s impact on pregnant cows or calves.

“It just depends on where we’re at. I do have a set of covered cattle pins that I could heat a room in,” Emerson said. “We have had them in our bathroom in our home before. It just depends on the situation and how bad the roads were getting to those different places.”

Consistent freezing temperatures along with moisture can increase calf mortality, cause calves to feel too cold, experience hypothermia and lose the tips of their tails or ears if they are not kept warm.

“That’s the most important thing, getting their core temperature back up,” Emerson said.

In February 2021, Emerson said a handful of calves on his farm died during the worst of the storm. He said that storm presented unheard of weather for a prolonged amount of time.

Paul Beck, Oklahoma State University’s Extension specialist for beef nutrition, said fluctuating temperatures also don’t help calves adapt to cold conditions. Calves can lose their winter fur coats when it’s warm for long periods.

Beck says most winter weather issues can be avoided, but the extension tries to help farmers tend livestock when extreme weather comes to the state.

“The best thing if you have a calf in hypothermia or a calf getting too cold then, you bring them in, get them warm, put them in a bathtub of warm water, make sure they have colostrum and have some warm milk replacer or something along those lines to eat.”

Most of Oklahoma’s cattle do not have a set calving season, but most cows are born between February and March, according to the Noble Research Institute.

Like Emerson, Scott Blubaugh lost calves on his ranch near Tonkawa, Oklahoma in the spring calving season of 2021.

Blubaugh, the president of American Farmers and Ranchers, said especially for a registered operation, cows with lost tips of tails or ears can be sold for less, possibly losing thousands of dollars. But in a commercial operation, it does not have much impact.

Blubaugh said the exhaustion of monitoring cattle in winter weather or trying to save calves also impacts the producer.

“Yeah, it does affect your mental and physical health because you’re pushing yourself,” Blubaugh said.

Blubaugh’s herd, made up of about 400 head of cattle, are halfway finished with their calving season. He said calves are resilient if kept dry and, like Emerson, Blubaugh has gone to many lengths to get them warm in his farming career.

“I’ve had many calves in the front of my truck,” Blubaugh said.

Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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