Hard-hitting winter: Conditions particularly challenging for livestock producers


This winter was a tough one for everybody. But the struggles some livestock producers experienced make problems with shoveling sidewalks and navigating slick city streets look pretty small in comparison.

“We’ve always had bad [winter] weather, but usually we have some good weather between storms. This winter, we could hardly get a break. It was one storm after another,” said Regan Smith of Smith Farms, which raise sheep, cattle and crops northeast of Powell. “It’s just been a costly winter for extra labor, extra feed and extra energy — propane and electricity.” 

“We’ve been at this a long time, and we were as ready as we could be,” Smith said. “We didn’t have a lot of tragic losses, but if we hadn’t been careful about where our sheep were during a couple of blizzards, we could have lost a bunch of them,” he said.

Smith said it was a constant struggle to make sure sheep and cattle were protected from the worst of the weather. 

“We have a lot of sheds, but we never have enough sheds,” he said. 

It took extra labor to keep dry bedding in the sheds and to find enough shelter for all the sheep and cattle, Smith said. 

“When you have this kind of brutal weather, it takes more calories for them to survive,” he added. “We lost more lambs than we would like. We had a lot of twins and triplets, and you get smaller lambs.” 

Tiny lambs are affected more easily by the cold than calves. Because lambs are so much smaller, “it’s like a 10-gallon bucket freezing vs. a 70-gallon bucket,” Smith said. “Cattle seem to handle it better.”

In addition, ewes that are struggling to survive and stay warm don’t milk as well as they would in better weather — and that puts further strain on their lambs, he said.

All of that meant it took more time and effort to care for the animals on a daily basis, and to protect them during winter events — all the while dealing with the cold, wind and snow yourself, Smith said. 

Adam George of George Farms told of similar hardships at the family-owned dairy between Cody and Powell. 

“It was a long winter, I can tell you that,” George said. “It was a lot of work. Everything is outdoors. A lot of dairies are enclosed, but ours are all out in open lots. So, we try to provide windbreaks and sheds for some of the milk cows, and then we bed down straw.”

The straw bedding helps keep the cows warm and clean, he said.

“But, then with the amount of snow we had ... we were constantly bedding down, and a couple of days later, scraping it up, then piling up bedding again. It’s hard to keep them as clean as we’d hope. You get a big weather event with 8 inches of snow, and it’s really hard to deal with.”

“We spent a lot of time and money doing that, especially compared to last winter, which was pretty mild,” he added. “It was a little disheartening to go and work that hard to get them nice and clean and dry, and the next day have it all ruined by another weather event.”

Because the dairy cows calve all year long, diligent observation was required to keep an eye on cows that were ready to give birth, and to get them into shelter to protect them and their calves.

It took more work and expense to feed the cows, since they have to eat more to maintain their body heat when the weather is bitterly cold. 

“We worked really heard to keep feed in front of them and keep them in good condition,” George said. “I remember one night, the cows wouldn’t even come to the boxes to eat, it was so cold. It was 20 below zero, and they wouldn’t leave the windbreaks, so we drove feed out to them.” 

Despite all that work, the herd still wasn’t as healthy as it normally is, he said.

Other farmers were experiencing difficulties as well.

“I had a lot of people calling me for hay. Ranchers, their winter pastures got all covered, and [the cattle] couldn’t get down to the grass,” George said. “I referred them to everybody I know who had hay. Almost everyone sold it all. I wish we had more to sell, but we had to use more ourselves.”

In addition to helping the cows weather the storms, the Georges stayed busy helping their neighbors.

“So many times people were snowed in out here,” George said. “We spent many many days plowing neighbors out so they could get to work. We did that over and over again for two months. We spent a lot of time doing that, which we were glad to do, but between that and the cows ...”

George welcomed this month’s warmer weather, but he’s not relaxing just yet. 

“We could still have big storms,” he said. “We still have March and April to go.”

This winter was a dramatic comparison to last winter, which was unusually mild. 

“I remember looking at the records, and I think we started around Feb. 22, getting out into the field,” George said March 16. “This year, with this warm weather, we’re hoping we can get there within a week. We’ll see what happens.”