Do bad winters come in pairs?

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So… the kids and I planted basil seeds just a few weeks ago, in the heat of fly season.  At least it seems like it was just a few weeks ago.  I had read online that flies are averse to the smell of basil, and at the time I was desperate for fly control around our house, so we planted… and then, seemingly in the blink of an eye, the snow was flying… and flies definitely aren’t the biggest problem around here anymore.

(I did move the pots of basil inside now that it’s freezing at nights.  Though they don’t seem to be growing, they are still alive.)

The point is that this last summer just flew by, faster than any summer has before for me.  I’d like to take a moment to mourn all the summer projects that weren’t accomplished:  I was going to remodel the breakfast bar in our kitchen (like the expert I am, of course).  I was going to paint.  I was going to goad my husband into several barnyard improvement projects.

But alas, we’ve all but run out of time.  Now that fall’s here, we’re busy with the busy-ness of a new season:  school, preg-checking, weaning, and generally battening down the hatches for the upcoming winter.  Ever since that first snow flew in late September, we’ve all had the feeling that Old Man Winter is breathing down our necks.

The big question around these parts these days is this:  Do bad winters come in pairs?  We sure enough had a bad one last year (check out Waiting on a Chinook, Part I and other posts near it for proof).  Old-timers said it was the worst winter since 1978-79.  The thing is, there had been a bad ‘un just before 78-79:  it was 77-78.  There were two of them in a row, two bad winters back-to-back with a summer in between them.

So the theory going around here, in some circles at least, is that bad winters come in pairs.  You know how people are when they’re talking about the weather.  Conversation tarries and it’s an easy subject to bring up.  But this year the topic seems pretty darn legitimate for us… because the costs of surviving the last one are freshly seared into our memories.

Beau figures the PV fed four normal years’ worth of hay last winter.  Then there was the ranch’s expense of paying local heavy-equipment operators to plow open roads, time and again, to cow camps and hungry cows.

The rumor in the local hamlets was that the ranch here had lost 400 head in the weather.  But I can happily report that, after every PV cow was counted at branding time this spring, Beau determined the ranch had lost about 60 cows (that’s less than 2% of the herd) between preg-checking last fall and branding this spring.  What’s more, of the cows that were bred up last fall, 88% of them brought a live calf to the branding trap this spring.  (Thankfully we calve in late April/early May; some of the cows had likely aborted from stress and hunger, while others were still pretty darn weak from surviving the winter when calving time came.  And because we couldn’t turn the first-calf heifers out to pasture-calve, they were a whole other brand of disaster.)

Still.  Decent statistics like those above don’t come easy.  There’s not just the financial reality of last winter to consider, but the cost to human body and soul as well.  Everything is harder to do in deep snow and freezing temperatures.  I know for a fact that Beau and some of his coworkers hardly slept last January and February, and Beau’s left foot is still acting weird thanks to a couple of toe-tingling work days:  one spent on a snowmobile driving hungry cows closer to camp, and one day riding shotgun in a plane that flew low over the ranch looking for stragglers.  Beyond all of that, we will likely see long-term effects in the PV cowherd — this fall’s breed-up in the cows and weaning weights in the calves will tell a more complete story.

Should the ranch prepare for another bad winter?  Honestly, being ideally prepared would involve ridiculous expenditure — the kind that would seem pretty foolish if the weather were to hold.  Again, four normals years’ worth of hay.  Four snow cats — for feeding hay at each cow camp.  A heifer-calving facility here at headquarters.  Snowmobiles for moving cattle through drifts too deep for horses to navigate.  And a couple of industrial-grade snowplows for opening roads to feed-grounds and houses (something better than what the county has, because the county sure couldn’t cut it).

This corporate ranch we work for isn’t big on ridiculous expenditure — actually, on expenditure at all, so there’s not much need for Beau and me and my folks to worry ourselves sick over it.  The general manager doesn’t seem too worried.  He hasn’t been here at the PV for almost a year now, since before the terrible winter blew in.  In response to Beau’s requests for emergency assistance last winter, he did okay the additional hay, and the tens of thousands paid to the heavy equipment company, and a new PTO-driven snowblower, and a panel wagon to aid the guys in calving heifers (Score for us!  We’d had a panel wagon on the wish list for several years!).  What’s more, he had delivered (to Billings, 70 miles to the west) two new bale-bed pickups.  The pickups came in May, from a dealership in Missouri, after the last of the snow had melted — too late to help with feeding cows through the terrible winter.  Still, the newness of all that loot gained in one short season on this economy outfit — where I have seen too few big-picture improvements in the last 36 years — is in and of itself a miracle… and a symbol to Beau that his new gray hairs have not all been for naught.

Sometimes it’s frustrating to work for somebody else, especially an obese and seemingly negligent corporate ranch like this one is.  But this past spring I visited with a friend who leases a ranch and runs her own cows, and she confessed that she’d had to borrow money from her young kids’ 4-H winnings to buy the last load of hay to get through the winter.  I decided right then and there that it’d been an awfully good year to work for a corporate ranch… because our paycheck comes twice a month no matter the weather.

© Tami Blake

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