North Dakota ranchers who battled blizzard Haley continue to deal with the aftermath
Cattle producers who lost calves in the April 2022 snow storms -- especially in western North Dakota where drought or dry conditions persist -- say the government's Livestock Indemnity Program needs update its funding formula and rules if partial compensation will be relevant.
NEW SALEM, N.D. — The blizzard they called “Haley” started April 12, 2022.
The driving snow lasted two to three days, across western and central North Dakota, followed by a brief break and then a four-day series of wind and icy rains. Some producers were hit with a third weekend of blizzard.
Two months later, cattle producers are still taking losses and trying to get fair compensation from the federal government.
“Nobody’s happy about talking about their death loss,” said Greg Maier, who operates a farm and ranch about 15 miles northwest of New Salem, North Dakota.
Greg, 69, and his wife, Diane, have a commercial black Angus ranch and a 1,000-head feedlot operation. They also raise hay crops. The operation typically has more than 400 cows — now at 320 — but they have had to sell off some cows due to the storm. He figured he lost about 10% to 12% of his calves, despite his family’s preparations and their best, heroic efforts.
“No one wants to talk about their failures,” says Greg’s daughter, Lacey, one of the family partners in the operation who toughed it out for two nights in a pickup, watching cows as the storm raged. Greg assured her she shouldn’t count it a failure.
They lost 30 to 40 calves.
“It’s the reality of what happens in these storms,” Greg said.
The Maier family isn’t one to seek the spotlight, but they know they’ve experienced an historic storm.. They’ve been ranching in the area since the 1880s.
As Haley took hold, the ranch hands included Greg and Diane, both 69, daughter Amy (Maier) Miller, son-in-law Jaread Miller, and daughter Lacey Maier, 34, and her daughter.
The Maiers started calving on April 1, so the storm came at the “peak,” as they say.
To prepare for the April 12 blizzard, the Maiers set up a 20-acre enclosure within a quarter-section calving pasture, about a quarter-mile southeast of the farmstead buildings. Jaread, who has a fencing business, called it “Fort Maier.”
They built up a manure pile into a windbreak and added bales. They quickly built a wide, permanent fence to partition off about 20 acres of the pasture. The circle was complete with a number of free-standing portable windbreak panels.
When the storm hit hard the morning of April 12, 2022, the cows drifted within the 20 acres to the south end of the pasture. Some calves started going through barbed wire fences. The Maiers hooked up a horse trailer to the tractor, loaded calves and returned them to the safety of the shelter.
Ten calves were born the first day, followed by 20 the next day. And another 20. By “Day 3” they had 43 calves in the barn.
‘Where we were at’
The Maiers had to be out there with the herd “24/7.” Lacey spent two nights out there in a pickup, in contact with cell phones. The snow got to be waist-deep. Greg would come out with a front-wheel assist tractor to put the calves in the loader bucket to take back to the farmstead.
“A couple of times, we kind of wondered where we were at,” Greg said of the trip to a pasture he’s known all his life.
Back at the ranch headquarters, the Maier family put the new calves in electric-powered warming boxes. One went into a deep sink, in the ranch's mud room, warmed with hot water in the room.
The Maiers have buildings, including a brick barn the family raised pigs in in the 1940s. The Maiers typically have pen space to 12 pairs, but made another dozen pens in processing alleys. They had to keep track of who got fed and who didn’t.
“We took the calf away before they got a chance to colostrum,” the first mother’s milk, rich in nutrients and antibodies," Lacey said.“We had to tube (feed) them to get colostrum we had mixed up” as needed."
The kids — Kolter Miller, 14, Kasyn Miller, 7, and Lacey’s daughter, Mattie, 6 — were pressed into service bottle feeding.
“That’s the only way we could save them,” Lacey said.
“The ones we had to feed, we’d bring out of the pen, and swap them and put them in the other pens,” Lacey said. They tried to feed twice a day, but in the middle of the storm.
Out at Fort Maier, cows huddled next to the windbreaks and became almost impossible to move. Some calves were born. A few died from in the cold. More seemed to die of exhaustion. When the snow stopped, there was a brief lull, and then another killer — another three inches of rain, wind at 30 mph, gusting to more than 50 mph.
When the snowstorm subsided, they brought cows back to the barn to be paired with their calves. Older cows were no longer used to the barns and would kick gates and panels. They put some in a chute to try to get the calf to nurse. Sometimes the cow rejected her calf. In this case, the Maiers had to use a mild sedative to calm the cows.
“The second storm with that cold rain really was the kicker,” he said. “These calves never got a chance to warm up. Even older calves — it was just hard and stressful on them.”
“We were forecast to get a third storm,” Lacey said. “ Thank God that didn’t happen. It went further east. I feel for those people.”
Typically, the Maiers have 5% calving losses. This year, the Maiers had 10% to 12% death loss from the storm — more than 30 calves. The Maiers vaccinate for respiratory ailments when they tag the calves.
“We’re still dealing with pneumonia, and scours,” Lacey Maier said.
Dehydration is a problem. They were losing one or two calves the week of May 26, but later told Agweek those effects had subsided.
The Maiers notified Farm Service Agency offices that they’ll be reporting losses. Lacey was happy the state FSA was trying to increase compensation from the $175 per calf that she compared to the $200 that the farm has had to pay per bale of alfalfa hay.
“We were short on hay because of the drought last year, and we had to go buy another load,” she said. “It costs a lot of money to feed a cow. A pen of 20 heifers will eat a bale of hay in a day and a half.
The Maiers family is counting their blessings and looking ahead to brighter days.
They lost electrical service for only about two hours. Other producers to west and north and northwest lost for up to 10 days.
“To lose power when you’re calving like this, and have no electricity to keep these calves warm, or lights in a barn, and in some cases to pump water, it can be a very big issue,” Greg said.
They are cheered by the fact they'll soon be joined by the Maiers’ son, James “Jim” Franciere, 45, and his who wife, Monique, are in the process of moving to the ranch after his career in the Air Force (a major in the new “Space Force”).
They feel fortunate about income diversification. Greg does reclamation work for the nearby coal mines. Jaread has his fencing business. Amy works from the ranch in an applications tech position for Sanford Health. Lacey works in the office at Kist Livestock in Mandan. (Lacey’s coworkers, including Hallie Burghart, 23, who ranches with her parents, Kelly and Paula Burghart of Mandan, North Dakota, and has a similar tale of struggle against the storm.)
Greg is satisfied that the family did all it could to save calves.
“It’s part of being in this business that things like this happen,” he said.
“Hopefully not every year,” Lacey said.
But now there’s that green grass. After last year’s drought, they are anxious to get at least a cutting of hay. They hauled water to one pasture, and now expect stock water in the dams.
As bad as it was, the calf-killing blizzard was better than another year of drought.