In the past, the winter season has proven difficult for farmers and ranchers in Sheridan County due to the harsh weather conditions that come with it – snow, freezing temperatures and limited hours of sunshine.
Now, what people may believe that makes winters tough for local ranchers doesn’t affect them as much. Instead, lack of moisture and inflated feed prices cause more problems, threatening the livelihoods of those who choose the laborious occupation.
“If you had asked me (what life on a ranch was like during the winter) 25 years ago, I would have immediately spoken about the huge winter storms and the impact they have on livestock, which needs more food,” said the executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. said Jim Magagna. “In recent years, it’s quite the opposite. The impact of winter is if we don’t get much snow or if we work with humidity.
Throughout the state, ranchers experience unique challenges during the winter months. Sometimes Sheridan County ranchers see a winter more true to what the season typically brings with snow and freezing temperatures. Other regions are suffering the dismal effects of drought, causing difficulties in the spring and summer when haymaking operations begin.
“It’s not a concern to get through winter, it’s a concern that winter will inevitably impact spring and summer,” Magagna said.
To be able to afford the ranching lifestyle, many operations include farming their own hay fields, either dry land or irrigated, grass hay or alfalfa. Some, like fourth-generation SR Cattle Company breeder David Kane, operate both with the intention of mixing feed types whenever necessary to supplement the herd’s intake.
“There is no such thing as normal,” said Kane, also president of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association. “You plan for the worst and hope for the best. For us, it is important to make sure we have enough hay stored to cover us in case of a bad winter. It’s our best insurance policy and I hope we don’t use it entirely.
In the past, Magagna said, ranchers would ride through big snowstorms and use machines to clear paths to feed cattle. Now ranchers are praying for more year-round rainfall to survive the dry winter months.
“The last two years – 2020 and 2021 – our dryland hay was almost non-existent and we bought a lot of high-priced, very expensive hay, as well as slaughtering our herd of cows so we didn’t have to buy like a lot. We did both,” said Kane, who operates over 1,000 bud.
However, feeding cattle in the winter takes experience and a bit of calculation. Kane said he also supplements foods with minerals and salt, like humans, to boost protein intake.
Cattle need to consume more calories the colder the weather because they burn more to stay warm. Kane said the general rule is to feed cattle 2% of their body weight. So a 1000 pound cow needs 20 pounds of feed per day. Kane said a simple way to gauge what to feed flocks is to observe if the flock looks hungry right after you feed them or if there is food left the next day and adjust them as needed.
“I just do it from experience,” Kane said. “I don’t necessarily have a numerical calculation that I use; I can kind of tell.
A typical schedule for Kane’s operation, which differs from other ranches, he said, begins in November when ranchers wean spring calves, which are either sent to market or kept to augment the herd. The cattle are then subjected to a pregnancy test. Pregnant cows stay on the ranch while non-pregnant cows are sold.
In January, cattle are fed hay until the end of April. Calving begins around the first of March. On May 1, irrigation begins. In mid-May, the calves that are born are branded, with neighbors helping neighbors complete the task.
“We help neighbors, neighbors help us,” Kane said. “It’s a community thing.”
In late June, Kane said he began harvesting hay while cattle graze on U.S. Forest Service land in July and August. The calves then go to market in August — Kane sells his stock at Sheridan’s top cattle auction — to be ready for delivery in the fall.
Cattle are then rounded up, vaccinated and weaned from their dams in time to be shipped to buyers.
North of Sheridan, the Kerns family operates a cattle operation on land near Parkman and in Lodge Grass, Montana, as well as cattle on US Forest Service land during the summer.
“Pass Creek country at the base of this mountain can be tough winter country at times,” said Dana Kerns. “We generally estimate that you need between two and two and a half tons of hay per cow per winter. When you start multiplying that by three, four or five hundred head of cows, you have a job seven days a week all winter long.
Kerns said December was their slowest time of year because they hadn’t started feeding hay yet and most of the livestock was basically done.
A few tough years of ranching forced the Kerns to branch out and begin to include cattle drives for tourists, an endeavor that has proven beneficial and necessary to stay viable and continue doing what they love.
Irrespective of the size of the farm and the elements of inclusion of agriculture, water is an integral part of every family business.
Ashleigh Snoozy joined The Sheridan Press in October 2016 as a reporter before taking on the role of editor in November 2018. She is originally from Colorado and graduated from Biola University in Los Angeles.