During the worst of the snowstorm last week, Ardmore-area rancher Jacey Woodward was hauling newborn calves into the house for a warm bath.
The heater in the calving barn was broken, and snow drifts piled up outside as wind chills dipped to zero. So Woodward and his wife, Myra, had to get creative in keeping the vulnerable calves warm and healthy, and survive.
"We had quite a few of them in the bathtub," Myra Woodward said. "They got a nice warm bath and a blow dry."
Finding creative solutions to critical problems is part of life at far-flung western South Dakota ranches, especially when a mid-April blizzard hits during the already challenging calving-and-lambing season on which farm financial success partly hinges.
Facing spring weather extremes is part of the struggle, too.
Jacey Woodward said his week began with a dust storm, as high winds scoured the parched prairie near Ardmore in southwest Fall River County along the Nebraska line.
But a day later the snowstorm arrived. The Woodwards, who manage 320 cows for Jeff and Diana Grill and their Grill Cattle Company, joined ranchers and ranch hands across western South Dakota in night-and-day duty to keep newborn calves and lambs alive.
Calves are tough by human standards. But they are still fragile in the early hours of life, which can come at any time.
"You just catch a little sleep in between checking the cattle, but it's pretty much round the clock," said Jacey Woodward, a 39-year-old former professional bull rider who is accustomed to rugged work environments. "I tried to get out there every hour and a half or so."
Getting out there is essential, because snowstorms with frigid temperatures and a cold, wet aftermath can be fatal for newborn calves and sheep. About 50 of of the cows under Woodward's care dropped calves by Thursday noon and others were coming fast.
"Since 3 a.m. this morning, we've had five calves here and two more getting close," Woodward said last week.
The cows are kept in corrals close by so they can be watched. When they're close to calving, he moves them into a barn so they can have a dry spot out of the weather.
Then they're shifted outside to corrals or pastures with fresh hay so the calves have dry spots to lie down.
Despite 17 to 20 inches of snow in the area by Woodward's estimates, he hadn't lost a calf as of Friday. "They're going along OK, better than you might expect," he said.
Some animals lost
That wasn't the case south of Edgemont, where Claude and Linda Plumb were struggling against the weather and lack of sleep in their short-handed effort to manage the lambing of 500 ewes.
Claude is 80 and Linda is 71. They operate with occasional help amid drifting snow conditions that kept them socked in for most of the week.
"It's a sloppy, muddy mess and they're cold. We can't get them all a good place to lay down and there's not enough to eat," Linda Plumb said. "It's a 24-hour deal. We're out there checking every hour. But some of them just don't make it."
Linda Plumb said five or six lambs had died because of complications from the storm. She was hoping the losses wouldn't rise much higher.
They lost a part-time helper when that person had to go home for a family problem. Mark Hollenbeck, who ranches north of Edgemont, managed to get in one day with a four-wheel-drive vehicle to help the Plumbs. "It was sure good of him to stop by and help," Linda Plumb said.
But the 2-mile lane from the main road is treacherous. Claude Plumb got stuck trying to get out one day. A Journal photographer in a four-wheel-drive pickup backed away from the mess on Friday rather than tackle their lane.
"We have a small International tractor. It's old, and Claude does what he can with it, but this snow is too much," Linda said. "We've got some neighbors who are pretty good about plowing us out."
Claude said there was not time to leave the place anyway, with lambs coming so fast.
A hard life
Times like last week make it hard to love the sheep business, Linda said.
"It's a lot of hard work. We're about played out and we're losing lambs," she said. "People tell us we're too old to be doing this, and I guess that's true."
Hollenbeck said the Plumbs were hit by the worst of the storm. Livestock losses were small overall in the Edgemont area, however, he said, and the moisture was a gift that the Southern Hills desperately needed.
"We were terrible dry. So if you haven't started calving, this was the best thing in the world," Hollenbeck said. "I know guys who are calving and had some death losses, but I haven't heard of anything extreme."
Out in the badlands south of Kadoka, Brett and Tammy Prang had their cows in protected cedar breaks along Pass Creek when the storm hit. They decided to leave them alone through the worst of it.
"The first day of the storm, we didn't bother them. We just left them down in those cedars instead of pulling them up to feed," Tammy said. "We fed the next day and there were four baby calves. They get down in that cover and they take care of themselves pretty well."
On his ranch northwest of Philip, Steve Clements was largely limited to a tractor or a horse for travel options. He runs both sheep and cattle and, despite the strong winds and 18 to 20 inches of snow, suffered only a couple of deaths because of the storm.
"We've got good windbreaks. And we get them close in and run them all through the barn," he said. "We've got plenty of straw for dry bedding. We're doing all right."
All told, the moisture was a blessing, Clements said.
"We hadn't had hardly a bit of snow all winter, and not much rain last summer," he said. "I think pretty much all this moisture will go in the ground when the snow melts. There won't be much runoff."
With a forecast that could bring more snow and rain, Clements said he'll trade more work in mucky conditions for the needed moisture. "I'll take it," he said.