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Ranchers seeing increase in aborted calves

Craig and Leslie Kemmet stand inside the barn with a pair of calves recently born at their cow-calf and farm operation last week near Tappen, N.D. The Kemmets say they expect 100 cows to calve over the next couple of weeks to join the 250 calves already born this season.

BISMARCK—Something like 10,000 live births are happening every day in North Dakota. These are wobbly legged calves, not humans, born into cold winds and wet snow of a typical spring.

It's rarely a perfect outcome, made more elusive as the effects of last year's drought ripple outward like waves from a rock chucked into a stock dam. It's early days still in the months'-long calving season, but some producers are seeing the consequences of last year's stunted pastures and inadequate hay in preterm abortions and dead calves.

The approximately 750,000 mom cows in North Dakota, just like human moms and maybe more so because they live outside, need good food to drop a healthy calf.

Steele, N.D., veterinarian Troy Dutton says good parturition follows good nutrition and the reverse is also true.

"Any time there are feed challenges, we know there will be issues later on," he said.

This year, he's seeing more aborted calves than normal in the clinic's service area.

"In some herds, it has been higher," he said.

Craig Kemmet, a Tappen, North Dakota-area rancher, is one of those. Kemmet said he isn't seeing the actual abortions, he's just seeing cows show up without a calf in them. Though that might happen three or so times in a normal year, this year he's already seen as many as seven in that situation, even though they pregnancy-tested positive in the fall.

"I would assume it's stress-related. It's not good when you feed a cow all winter long, and there's no calf. It's not a happy thing," Kemmet said.

Dutton advises producers with calving issues to move quickly to diagnose the problem.

"The important thing is to figure out what's going on," he said.

Clinic vets will visit the herd, evaluate the feed and work with producers on a strategy.

In addition, poorer nutrition can make live calves more susceptible to disease and pneumonia, so a birth is not an automatic success.

"We won't know the full effect until calving season is over, but with quality feed issues and the ice not being kind to us, it all ties together," Dutton said.

State Ag Commissioner Doug Goehring said his office also is fielding reports of mid- and late-season abortions in central and western North Dakota more than elsewhere, but not from all producers in those areas.

Part of the problem is ranchers are relying heavily on hay made from summer's failed grain crops. Goehring said somewhere from 300,000 to 900,000 acres of grains, such as oats and barley, were baled up instead of harvested. Ranchers were cautioned to test grain hay for potentially toxic nitrates from unsynthesized fertilizer and consider blending it to be on the safe side.

"The problem is that some are blending forage without good food value. They were safe on the toxins, but still did not have enough energy value from straw or old CRP so they missed the mark," Goehring said.

Karl Hoppe, livestock specialist at the Carrington extension research center, said he, too, is hearing of preterm abortions in cows.

"When there is early parturition, it's imperative that it be diagnosed and producers should bring in both the calf and the placenta, if possible, for a necropsy," said Hoppe, adding that he understands that dead calves feel like a badge of dishonor and they're hard to admit to, much less talk about. "But things happen, and hopefully, we can learn from them."

County extension agent Craig Askim, of Beulah, North Dakota, said he's getting more than the normal number of calls of calf aborts and deaths in the Coal Country region, where nearly everyone is supplementing with grain hay.

"There's no train wreck in any single operation, just an isolated case or two on the ranch," he said. "If they're having feed issues, it's a relatively easy fix to get onto a different feed source. I would say it's a moderate concern, not an epidemic. But it is something to keep an eye on."

Emmons County agent Kelsie Egeland said the calf death loss is higher this spring in her south central area, too.

"Why, we don't know. With nitrates, a lot of people tested for that. I'm more concerned with feed quality, older hay or moldy," she said.

It's too soon to know whether this spring will spike the average 3.2 percent annual calf death loss, a number that extension beef specialist Kris Ringwall says doesn't fluctuate much over the long term.

"Of course, that number doesn't mean anything when you're in the middle of the problem," he said. "Nutrition is always key, and most producers can manage their way through it pretty well."

Calving season will peak sometime in April and wind down in early to mid-May. Those weeks will fly by like they always do, and soon ranchers will be turning cows and young 'uns out in the pasture so nature can do the feeding chores.

Kemmet, of Tappen, said he'll wait and see before he opens the gates.

"We have a lot of snow and mud and, hopefully, that means grass. We are talking about a delayed turnout and feeding another 20 to 30 days to let the grass recover," he said.

Producers did what they could last year to take the pressure off grass and hay, selling 10,000 more culled cows than the previous year at Stockmen's Livestock in Dickinson, said owner Larry Schnell.

Between the drought, dry fall conditions and a depressed market, a lot of producers were pretty down in the mouth coming into the spring. The recent snowfall — such critical moisture for cool season grasses — helped soften that expression, Schnell said.

"The snow changed a lot of attitudes. It filled up the stock dams, and ranchers are pretty optimistic. At least we got a little start," he said.