It is late February in Eastern Montana; Thirty degrees Fahrenheit, with no wind. Thus far the weather has been perfect for a high plains stockman; open as we like to say. Though there has been about 20 inches of snowfall so far, several chinooks have come. Their warm summer-like winds bared off the range letting the cattle graze almost every day through the cold. It’s not like most of the world; fall cured native grasses are as good as excellent hay due to the semi-arid climate. The summer was good, pasture saved for winter with natural windbreaks and cover is well sodded over and the grass is as strong as alfalfa hay. All that is needed now is fair weather so the livestock can move out and graze. These are the types of winters that made Montana famous. The haystacks lay silent and still, great snow covered prickly beasts slumbering out the winter on wind scoured flats.
A big dark soggy line in the western sky portends the next move in this cyclical struggle: wits and courage versus the random unfeeling foe: Old Man Winter. Soon the winds pick up; thin storm streamers sail past like javelins hurled by an advancing skirmish line. And that it just what it is; the periodic northern invader pours through Judith gap- another Alberta Clipper sends broadsides of blizzard into the unsuspecting Musselshell country.
All evening and night the snow falls; fast and thin at first, rasping winds blast across the prairie. Cattle reel eastward with the squall till their drifting trek is interrupted by obstacles. Here and there they bunch up like the seventh cavalry surrounded by a shrieking, pelting foe. Outnumbered and outgunned they circle up, tails towards the outside, a big knot of hair. Heads to the ground and tails to the weather they stand numbly and patiently; either the storm blows out, or they freeze where they stand – odds are they will outlast this one as they have all the others: just another day in the life of range cattle.
Twenty below zero; the sun creeps over the horizon as if she has a bayonet at her back. The view in every direction is panoramic; a new white-beyond-white quilt has buried everything in all directions. A dark blue dome has covered the sky with the odd star not snuffed out by the storm vainly twinkling in the through the oncoming dawn. With the sky paling to a glittering light blue and the wind laid to rest, all seems like a Leanin’ Tree postcard from someone who has never experienced such a morning. But you have and you know better- the conditions are ripe for the perfect storm every cowman fears; not a storm of waves and gale force winds but even worse an approaching abortion storm.
The cattle are ravenous, fighting the winter night with all tenacity; stomachs cry for feed; yet the grass is under ten inches of new subzero snow. When they reach for the grass the snow ascends up to their eyes… this will not do, but they know where they can get some quick energy, even if marginal. Energy that comes with a deadly price this time of year, one month before they are to give birth: Ponderosa Pine branches laden with fresh crunchy green needles. Now the race begins: you send your wife out with the dogs to haze the cattle away from the trees as you race to the haystack cracking it open, quickly taking a load so the cows can eat something else besides needles.
No one is exactly sure why- there has been little scientific inquiry into such an arcane aspect of animal agriculture, but in the last trimester of pregnancy, ingesting pine needles causes abortion within twenty four hours. Ranchers know this very well but their charges do not; nor do they seem to care. They are cold and hungry and cannot see or think beyond the end of their noses. Most of us groan in frustration when this occur; especially when we did not prepare by moving the cows away from the trees to another pasture, or feeding them before the sun began to rise. Lack of planning on our part and a cow’s propensity to do what feels right at the moment (instinct) can create a biological and business disaster.
It is very easy to rage on about the stupidity and ignorance of a hairy leather bag with horns; certainly during the heat of the moment one wonders why he has saddled himself with the blistering font of seeming stupidity that is a cow. However at quiet times afterwards stockmen always reflect upon one Great Truth: how similar cattle are to man.