How many cattle in Montana die from extreme cold?
A listener wants to know how many cattle die due to extreme cold each year in Montana. And what's the story behind "The Great Die-Up" of 1887?
Austin Amestoy Welcome to The Big Why, a series from Montana Public Radio where we find out what we can discover together. I'm your host, Austin Amestoy. This is a show about listener-powered reporting. We'll answer questions, large or small, about anything under the Big Sky. By Montanans. For Montana, this is the Big Why.
And Kathleen Shannon is here to answer this week's question. Welcome back, Kathleen.
Kathleen Shannon Thanks, Austin. Hey, remember that cold snap that froze-up the state just before the New Year?
Austin Amestoy I can't forget it. I think I'm still warming up.
Kathleen Shannon Yeah, well, it was the perfect time to dig into this question from MTPR listener Scott Richards.
Scott Richards Yeah, it's it's a minus 36-degree wind chill as we're speaking right now.
Kathleen Shannon Richards is a writer based in Livingston, and a tour guide in Yellowstone National Park. Even before that storm, he'd been wondering how one of Montana's most abundant species survives the state's winters: Cattle.
Scott Richards Cattle die every winter. But we don't talk about this.
Kathleen Shannon He wanted to know how many cattle die each year in Montana due to extreme cold. And there's one year in particular that inspired his inquiry. Have you heard of "The Great Die-Up"?
Austin Amestoy I can't say I have, but that sounds pretty ominous.
Kathleen Shannon Yeah. So the winter of 1886 to 1887 was so devastating for cows it got its own name. In fact, The New York Times ran an article about it on February 19th, 1887. Austin, give this quote from the story a read.
Austin Amestoy Okay.
"Stock of all kind is suffering in a most fearful manner. And while some of the cattlemen estimate the probable loss at 25%, the majority claimed to have quit figuring on the losses now and will be thankful if they have enough left to start anew in the spring."
Wow, that does sound pretty bad.
Kathleen Shannon When it gets too cold, a cow can die from hypothermia just like a human. Ideally, they're eating more than usual to help keep up with increased energy needs. If not, they'll start burning stored fat, which in turn makes them more susceptible to the cold. But all across the plains that winter, cows couldn't break through the thick crust on the snowpack, so they starved too. The Great Die-Up was so bad, that it essentially changed how the cattle industry operates, morphing into the one we recognize today. Back then, Montana wasn't even a state yet and there weren't fences everywhere, so cattle mostly roamed without much human chaperoning.
Harley Coleman The herds were too big and they couldn't be managed right.
Kathleen Shannon That's Harley Coleman, a rancher I visited in Charlo, Montana.
Harley Coleman But that's all changed now. People take care of their animals. You have to because you have to make an investment. It's your livelihood.
Kathleen Shannon Coleman is semi-retired after a lifetime of ranching and now runs what he calls a hobby sized herd. He told me that calving season, when cows are giving birth, is when cattle are most likely to die due to cold.
Austin Amestoy And why is that?
Kathleen Shannon Calves are really susceptible to cold because they're wet when they're born. And if a calf isn't dried sufficiently, either by its mom or a rancher, its legs or ears could freeze. It could even freeze to death. So, odds of survival are better if calving happens in warm weather. But when cows calve is a business decision. If a rancher wants to sell a 700lb cow in October, that cow probably needs to be standing on its own four legs by the end of March.
Austin Amestoy Wow. And in Montana, that's still pretty much winter.
Kathleen Shannon Exactly. There's a lot of ways to prevent loss during that time. And we'll get to that. But first, I want you to hear from Coleman about the winter of 1979.
The day calving season started, it got about 30 below and 30, 40 mile-an-hour winds. And I had to be with those cows when every calf was born. I went for a month, and honest truth, I never took my coveralls off.Harley Coleman
Harley Coleman The day calving season started, it got about 30 below and 30, 40 mile-an-hour winds. And I had to be with those cows when every calf was born. I went for a month, and honest truth, I never took my coveralls off.
Kathleen Shannon He'd sleep 30 minutes at a time on the linoleum floor in his kitchen.
Austin Amestoy Oh, my gosh. I can't imagine. Did it pay off? Did all of his calves survive?
Kathleen Shannon Almost. Coleman lost just a couple calves that year. He said a loss of up to 2% in a year comes with the territory of the business. Actually, several ranchers gave me that same number.
I told Coleman I was trying to learn how many cattle die each winter in Montana. He said that would be a tall order because, you know, no one's excited about losing animals.
Harley Coleman We don't like to tell somebody we lost a cow yesterday. Then I go to the doctor the next day for a physical, and my blood pressure is up about 40 points. And I wondered why. And that was a reason. It just bugs you.
Austin Amestoy So it sounds like ranchers aren't reporting every cow they lose. Kathleen, were you still able to get data for losses across the state?
Kathleen Shannon You're right, it's reasonable to assume losses are under-reported, so I got a number for a cattle loss in Montana, but it's ballpark. Both the federal government and the state have programs that compensate ranchers for livestock losses. You've probably heard about this in the news.
Austin Amestoy Yeah, for wolves. Right?
Kathleen Shannon Right. Death by predation is one category for reimbursement. Another is unusually adverse weather. I got data from the United States Department of Agriculture that broke down the numbers from those compensation programs by county and cause of death over the past decade. Those numbers vary a lot from year to year, since not every winter has those crazy cold storms. Let's look at data from 2021, which is sort of a median representation of that time frame. There were nearly 2.5 million cattle in Montana on January 1st. By the end of 2021, 606 cows were claimed through the Indemnity Program as dead due to extreme cold. That's just two hundredths of a percent.
Austin Amestoy That seems pretty small.
Kathleen Shannon This data may not be totally complete, but all in all, it shows that 2021 was a pretty mild winter. In fact, summer loss was almost as high that year, mostly due to wildfire. But 2018 was a different story.
Austin Amestoy Another rough year?
Kathleen Shannon It was definitely a year of big loss, like 45 times higher than in 2021. There was a lot of snow that year and temps were cold enough to keep it from melting. Almost 27,000 cattle were claimed dead due to extreme cold, more than 1% of all Montana's cattle. But remember, these numbers are low. To qualify for the Indemnity Program, losses must be due to unusual circumstances. So, a couple cows lost to a big storm probably wouldn't count in this data. That's exactly the kind of loss Jim Spinner experienced during that big freeze in late December 2022 we were talking about earlier. He manages the Veebaray ranch on 16,000 acres, in Lambert, Montana, near the border of North Dakota.
Jim Spinner When it's already 30 below or something like that, and it's blowing at 50 miles an hour, it's really hard to deal with.
Kathleen Shannon Spinner said blowing snow made it really hard to see, and one cow just got lost in the fray. He didn't find her until the weather cleared.
Austin Amestoy Oh, that is some serious weather.
Conditions in eastern Montana are more extreme than in western Montana. Ranches are generally bigger there and weather is harsher. In fact, back to that data, the counties that had the most significant losses in 2018 include Blaine, Fergus and Phillips — big counties in the plains of north central Montana.
Kathleen Shannon Yeah. That was another thing I heard from several ranchers. Conditions in eastern Montana are more extreme than in western Montana. Ranches are generally bigger there and weather is harsher. In fact, back to that data, the counties that had the most significant losses in 2018 include Blaine, Fergus and Phillips — big counties in the plains of north central Montana.
Austin Amestoy Well, I suppose loss is inevitable during some winters. So, how do ranchers prevent it during other years?
Kathleen Shannon Well, during any cold weather, ranchers can lay down more bedding to keep animals out of the wet mud and give them extra feet. And then there's winter prep that can happen before the cold even sets in. Scheduling calving season as late as possible is helpful. And when calving begins, some ranchers have started installing cameras in their barns to keep an eye on things. Ranchers might slim the size of their herd by selling some animals off if a drought's in the forecast. Regular vaccine schedules help keep herds strong, no matter what the weather is doing. But like you said, Austin, some loss is inevitable and it's a lot of work to minimize that. But Harley Coleman says ranching is worth the hard work.
Harley Coleman It's like somebody asked a rancher one time, 'when are you going to sell your cows and enjoy life?' And he says, 'who says, I'm not enjoying life?'
Austin Amestoy Well, thanks for braving the cold for this story, Kathleen.
Kathleen Shannon My pleasure.
Now we want to know what makes you curious about Montana. This show is all about answering your questions, so send them to us below or at www.mtpr.org/bigwhy. Find us wherever you listen to podcasts and help others find the show by sharing it and leaving us a review.
A wildfire burned through the small town of Denton, MT in December of 2021. It burned more than 10,000 acres and destroyed 25 homes. So how is the town of Denton rebuilding, and what does wildfire resilient construction look like?
One listener wants to know why non-Natives make up a majority of the population on the Flathead Reservation. Another listener asks how much land Montana’s reservations lost to White settlement. The answer goes back to an 1887 law that ramped-up the federal government's efforts to assimilate Native people and erase their cultures.
Following a lot of news about climate change, protests, presidential directives and court cases, a listener wants to know what Montana is doing to address climate change. It's a big question, so the answer will come in three parts. Here's part 1.
A listener is curious about how glaciers are faring in the south end of the Mission Mountains, those big peaks you can see from Highway 93 on the Flathead Reservation. Learn more about them now, on The Big Why.
Montanans hate it. Politicians fear it. Supporters discuss it in hushed tones after the blinds are closed and the kids are tucked safely into bed. Yet, It doesn't exist in Montana. What is it? Today we’re talking about the sales tax. Wait, don't go! The tax debate is actually pretty hot right now, and a listener wants to know why Montana remains one of the few states without a sales tax.