Ranchers deal with 15 days of sub-freezing temperatures

By Kathy Brown

Gillette News Record

Via Wyoming News Exchange

GILLETTE — Charlene and Doug Camblin, like many ranchers in Campbell County, aren’t calving yet.

But there are always a few surprises in a cattle and calf operation.

A week ago, on Doug’s birthday and with temperatures close to minus 15, they found a newborn heifer. They were lucky, though. The Camblins carried the calf to their home, where they were able to warm it up and it managed to survive despite the wind chill.

Monday morning dawned with similar cold temperatures in northeast Wyoming and Charlene answered the phone with: “I’m frozen to an ice cube.”

Also Monday morning, Campbell County School District officials delayed the start of school for two hours — the second time this winter they’ve taken that action because of dangerously cold temperatures.

The National Weather Service in Rapid City, South Dakota, also issued a windchill advisory through 11 a.m. Monday, saying the dangerously cold windchills — ranging from minus 15 to minus 24 — could cause frostbite on exposed skin within 30 minutes.

Brutal winter

This has been a brutally cold winter, especially for cow-calf operations. Each year ranchers budget for the feed they think they will need. This year, Charlene said, many ranchers are feeding their cows more to compensate for the cold and the windchills their cattle are facing.

Yet the Camblins, like many ranchers, are optimists. They know the sub-zero cold will pass. It’s just a matter of being patient.

Along with the cold and wind, there has been more snowfall. When temperatures in February became mild — all of six days above freezing — that allowed ice and snow to melt. That’s now become a layer of ice that has been covered by snow that hopefully will mean full reservoirs and good, green conditions this spring when the snow does melt.

When calving and lambing begins, ranchers hope the weather will be more springlike.

“A lot of ranchers are getting close,” Charlene said. “You want your first-year calves early so they can really build back up in the summer.”

Those who do that often have a set-up where they can keep calves, cows and heifers warm and out of the wind this time of the year, Charlene said.

“But you can only do so much. This is tough,” she said. “You feed more to animals and you keep your fires and stoves lit.”

That’s not just happening on ranches. Some emergency fire calls have been made in Gillette as well in attempts to warm freezing pipes.

At 4:49 p.m. Sunday, the Campbell County Fire Department responded to a call at 60 W. Thomas Jefferson Road for a report of a fire under a mobile home. The owner had the fire controlled when the firefighters arrived.

The owner had been thawing a frozen sewer line with a propane weed burner and heated up insulation under the mobile home, which started to smolder and smoke. Firefighters made sure the fire had not spread.

Charlene said she had heard about a lot of frozen pipes for those living in Gillette.

Cattle are resilient

Thankfully, cattle are resilient, she said, and they have to be to get through these situations. Their thick hide protects them and their internal furnace works efficiently even if a pile of snow can be seen on their backs. In fact, that’s a sign that their internal systems are working well, because the cows are warm inside but not melting the snow.

Normally this time of year, temperatures should be in at least the 30s with nighttime temperatures around 0 degrees north of Gillette.

That’s not what much of February and early March are bringing the area, however.

The official low so far in March is the minus 15 recorded early Sunday morning. The high Sunday reached minus 2 degrees. The low Saturday morning was minus 7.

The Gillette area has endured a 17-day stretch of temperatures below freezing and there are more days like that to come, according to the National Weather Service.

While Gillette hasn’t set any record low temperatures, according to official weather records from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, it did set a record low for the maximum temperature Sunday.

That minus 2 degrees high for Sunday is a record low high temperature for March 3.

The mercury hit 40 degrees Feb. 14 and since then, temperatures haven’t risen above 32 degrees in Gillette.

Eternal optimists

The high, 45 degrees, was recorded Feb. 1. It’s been a deep freeze since.

Temperatures this week aren’t expected to rise above 32 degrees until Thursday. The high is expected to reach 34 degrees Thursday, then 37 degrees Friday, before it drops again into the high 20s for the weekend.

Statewide, a slow warming trend is forecast through Thursday. The extended outlook favors below normal temperatures and below normal precipitation, with 1 to 3 inches of snow possible Wednesday afternoon and night.

But Charlene, who predicted many area ranchers will have to buy more hay this year because of the amount of feed they’re running through, knows this streak of cold will have to end at some point.

“Ranchers are the eternal optimists,” she said. “We’ll get there.”