For many Central Oregon ranchers, February marks the beginning of calving season, a time crucial to their cattle operations. As in every agricultural operation, success rides on many factors — including the weather.
The late snowstorm that hit the region during the final week of February rapidly dumped 2-3 feet of snow in places and for Jeremy and JoHanna Symons, owners of Symons Beef Co. in Madras, the storm could have put them out of business. It nearly did when they lost 30% of their calves for the year because of the storm.
"This is the worst year we've ever had," JoHanna Symons said. "We both thought we were probably going to be out of the business."
"That deep snow was a real double whammy," said Scott Duggan, the livestock field faculty for OSU Extension's Central Oregon region, mentioning that the amount of snow, the late timing and how rapidly it fell is what caused it to be so impactful on this year's calf crop.
Duggan, based in Prineville, said usually the major snowstorms are done in December or January and ranchers have slightly less to worry about when they start calving in February. This year, however, Duggan estimated that about 10% of the calf crop in the area was lost to the storm.
"(Ranchers) deeply care about their animals and its heartbreaking to try and save a calf and it ends up dying," he said.
Duggan said with so much snow and cold temperatures when the calves are born, they can freeze overnight or develop pneumonia and respiratory problems. But, he said, with all that snow, "Sometimes you can't get there quick enough."
To try and battle the harsh conditions for the calves, producers like the Symonses spent time plowing large areas of snow and laying down straw to give the mother cows somewhere to lay to have their babies and keep the calves already born out of the deep snow.
However, cattle are creatures of habit and despite the Symonses efforts, their herd had a tendency to crowd into the corner of the feeding ground, staying close together. She said the majority of their loss came from suffocation. The mother cows' instinct is to lie close to their babies and keep them warm in the harsh weather; in this case they got too close, accidentally suffocating their calves.
Losing 30% means a huge financial loss for the family and Symons said it will take multiple years to recover the loss fully.
"It sucks to think that we are not making any money this year," she said. But, with the help of the Livestock Indemnity Program, a program through the Farm Service Agency, they will be able to continue their operation.
LIP helps ranchers compensate for animals lost during adverse weather.
Symons said the program will pay about 50% of the loss, which means that for each calf lost, the program is planning to pay them about $460, which will help them get by. That being said, if the calves had lived, they would have been worth anywhere from $800-900.
Symons said other area producres will certainly be utilizing the program as well, noting that during the time they were losing calves, they called the vet to come out and essentially witness the events, unsure of whether they could qualify for the assistance without the vet.
"It's a very tough business to be in," Symons said. "In this business, there are so many factors that come into play."
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