Lenard Vetter makes his way through a small herd of Red and Black Angus cattle in a feedlot just west of his ranch
On this April day, the nearly 50-degree weather is welcomed by both Vetter and his herd. Two months ago, it felt a lot different.
“It was like the North Pole here,” Vetter said. “It was cold and miserable, and it never let up. You never had a day where it got above freezing. There was no break.”
The 61-year-old Vetter started calving around Feb. 10 on his ranch, which he and his wife run with the families of his son and daughter, northeast of Linton. The Vetter family has 350 head and farms 1,000 acres, growing wheat, corn and soybeans.
This winter was unlike any other, Lenard said, mainly because of the back-to-back months in which a cold February was followed by a stormy March.
“There were nights at 20- and 30-below, and you just basically had to live with the cows,” he said. “If we would have missed a calf that was an hour old, it probably would have been frozen.”
And when it did get warm, the snow hit. Experiencing one of the harshest winters for snowfall in North Dakota in the past 100 years, ranchers who calved early likely experienced what Vetter called, “A nightmare.”
“There was no break,” he said. “When March started with the storms, it felt like we had three storms a week. It was relentless. It just wouldn’t give up.”
Early mornings didn’t start with checking on the herd, as the family couldn’t even get to its cattle. Even when it didn’t storm, overnight winds had already covered up many of the roads and trails that are typically used.
“Most days, we had to move snow for an hour to get where we wanted to get to,” he said. “We’d open it in the morning, and that was just a path. Then in the afternoon, we’d open it a little wider. Then two or three days later, we’d have to start the process all over again and reopen it all up.
“That’s what we did every day. Feeding cattle and moving snow all day.”
Vetter recalled the 1996-97 winter, widely considered the worst on record for North Dakota, as it holds many of the snowfall accumulation records around the state. Still, Vetter said the calving season itself was not as bad as this year.
“The snow came in January, not February,” he said. “We had a pretty good March, and in April we had one big blizzard. It wasn’t 10 blizzards (like this year). We just had so many this March.”
The Vetters had to purchase hay to keep up with a herd expending energy trying to keep warm. Lenard said they typically have to purchase some hay every year, but had to dig deeper this year because drought hurt hay production last summer.
“Cold is hard on the cows – they have to be fed better,” he said. “This winter probably costed us 30% more feed. When the temperatures are above 30 degrees, you can feed 30% less. But we didn’t have hardly any days above 30.”
A strong wheat harvest led to what was originally believed to be a two-year supply of straw bales. However, Lenard said the winter took its toll on that supply as well.
“We used about three times as much straw as we would in a normal year, mostly because of the storms in March,” he said. “Every pen needed to be re-strawed every day. It was two bales per pen, and we had six different places we had cattle. We thought we had enough, but we’re gonna pretty much use it all up.”
Lenard estimated he lost around 20 calves this winter, though that was partially offset by 14 sets of twins.
“For the weather we went through, that’s pretty dang good,” he said. “If there had been only one person here instead of three of us, we might have lost 50.”
A hard winter on the ranch also means a hard winter living in a rural area, where roads constantly need to be plowed so families can get to school and work. And with the Church of St. Michael nestled conveniently between his ranch and his west feedlot, Lenard and his family made sure all roads were kept open all the way to the highway, a six-mile stretch.
“We didn’t really go anywhere other than to church on Sundays,” he said.
The 2022-23 winter was bad enough, in fact, that Lenard is confident he won’t see another one this harsh.
“You get one of these winters every 100 years,” he said. “I hope I never see another one, and I don’t think I will.”
— Chris Aarhus, NDFU