Montana's memorable winter is making life miserable for ranchers whose cattle are struggling to survive in the deep snow, bitter temperatures and wind, particularly on the Blackfeet Reservation where significant losses are expected.
"This is a crisis," said Joe Kipp, chairman of the Blackfeet Nation Stockgrowers Association and a rancher with 200 head of cattle north of Browning. "This is a storm that has the potential to kill thousands of head of cattle."
The storm Kipp refers to actually is a series of storms that began in northern Montana beginning Jan. 1 that have produced record amounts of snow and a series of blizzards that have not only hammered communities but hemmed in livestock producers trying to reach cattle with feed.
Among the hardest hit has been the Blackfeet Reservation, where 38,000 head of cattle graze the landscape.
"There are dead livestock," said Verna Billedeaux, Montana State University extension agent on the reservation who also ranches between Heart Butte and Browning.
Brutal conditions have persisted into calving season which is just getting under way now in many locations.
Calves born when its 6 degrees with the wind blowing 40 mph - common conditions this year - will need help surviving, said Raymond Michaels, a rancher north of Cut Bank east of the Blackfeet Reservation.
"And the calf hits the ground, they don't have much of a chance unless you're there," Michaels said.
Michaels said he's not expecting to get much sleep in the next few weeks.
Gov. Steve Bullock, who issued an executive order declaring a state of emergency on the Blackfeet, Fort Belknap, and Northern Cheyenne reservations and in Glacier and Golden Valley counties Tuesday, visited the the storm-battered Blackfeet Reservation Thursday.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said he's calling on federal officials to be ready to provide disaster relief as large amounts of snow continue to accumulate across the state, and personally discussed local needs with FEMA Administrator Brock Long.
Several winter storm systems have caused severe snowdrifts, extreme cold and blizzard conditions, and have dumped more than 80 inches of snow in areas around Browning in February.
"Hundreds of people in northwestern and southeastern Montana have been stranded in remote areas and are unable to restock firewood or food," Tester said.
Tester said he's also requesting immediate assistance from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue highlighting the added strain that snowfall puts on agriculture operations.
Tribal officials took to the air in an helicopter Thursday morning to assess the conditions across the reservation, Billedeaux said.
How many cattle have died from the cold, windy and snowy conditions isn't known yet, Billedeaux said.
She knows deaths are occurring because she is talking with producers, and cattle have died on her own ranch, she said.
Cold temperatures are killing some cattle, she said.
In one 14-hour whiteout, some cows that were squished into a small area surrounded by 12-foot-tall snow drifts smothered to death, Billedeaux said.
Losses also are occurring because some cattle are giving birth prematurely, she added.
Cattle on the Blackfeet Reservation such as this calf are dying as the result of a cold, snow and wind, officials said. (Photo: MSU Extension/Blackfeet Reservation)
"They get beat up with storms like these and they die because they're weak," Billedeaux said Thursday from her office in Browning.
It was the first time Billedeaux had been to her office in Browning in 24 days because she was trapped on her ranch. The main road was blocked with snow. Even when the road did open, the only way to reach it from the ranch was in a Bobcat or tractor, she said.
"There was no let up the entire month of February," Billedeaux said of the weather. "It was a month-long weather event."
Kipp says at least 200 ranching families on the reservation are "greatly affected" by the deep snow that's made it impossible for some ranchers to reach cattle in remote pastures with four-wheel drive pickups to feed them.
"I'm expecting my neighbors to have very significant losses this spring," Kipp said.
Any place where feed has to be transported by highway - and that highway is closed - cattle have gone several days without being fed, he said.
"I'm sure they won't even find a lot of them until springtime when the snowbanks thaw out," Kipp said.
Kipp was at tribal headquarters Thursday morning, the first time in 12 days he'd been able to make it off of his ranch north of Browning.
"One more storm after this and I will be SOL," said Kipp.
Kipp says he's been fortunate up until now because his ranch provides natural cover for his cows, and he's been able to reach them with hay using a four-wheel drive tractor with chains on the tires.
He's still lost a couple of baby calves and a 2-year-old pregnant cow.
He's cleared a space of snow where he feeds the cattle.
"They don't dare get off the packed ground otherwise they'd be dragging their bellies," Kipp said.
By Jan. 1, 31 inches of snow already had fallen at his ranch.
He's measured an additional 5 to 6 feet of snow since then.
"Back in the 70s they had one winter like this and there were lots of dead cattle," he said.
Back then, the Montana Air National Guard conducted a hay lift distributing feed to stranded animals.
The severe winter will result in smaller calves because they were starved as fetuses, Kipp said.
And it will be difficult to get the same mother cows in the proper condition to "breed back" in June, he added.
"So our production mother cattle are going to be affected by this for two full years," Kipp said.
Because of the snow and the wind blowing it around, each day Kipp must plow a path to his haystack, and also plow the area where the cows are fed.
That's doubled his tractor time and use of diesel fuel.
If one more big storm hits, he doesn't think he'll be able to reach the cattle using his tractor. In that case, he said, he might need to hitch up a team of horses to drag the hay bales to the cattle.
"This is a huge, very serious situation and I would like everyone to be able to know about it," Kipp said.
Ranchers said the cost of feeding cattle has doubled because grazing ground is buried, and more feed is necessary as cattle burn more calories in the wintry conditions to maintain body temperature especially when they are pregnant.
Fuel costs also are up because ranchers are plowing more to keep roads and trails open to reach the animals.
In the weekly Montana hay report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said ranchers across the state are "feeding hay at an alarming rate as temperatures are 5-30 below zero most mornings."
Hay and straw supplies are running out, it says.
"This additional buying has burnt through the surplus of hay in many valleys in just a few short weeks," the report says. "Straw supplies are also near nil and with many ranchers in the middle of calving, straw is in a very high demand."
Kim Peterson, who ranches 27 miles northwest of Havre just south of the Montana border with Canada, said many ranchers already were struggling because drought or fire consumed grazing last summer. Now the snow is covering up winter pastures.
"Basically when it's this cold, the cows eat more," Peterson said. "They can't graze at all for one thing, so everything they consume is fed to them."
The biggest problem for producers right now is the poor condition of roads and getting to the cows to feed them, he said.
Some people are running low on hay supplies, he said.
And because the drought last year reduced grazing land and demand for supplemental feed, hay prices are already high, Peterson said.
Last fall, hay was selling in the $120-per-ton range and $150-per-ton with delivery.
"Now it's probably $30 a ton higher if you can even find it," Peterson said.
Combined with high hay prices and low cattle prices, the winter will have a financial impact on ranchers, he said.
Peterson says he hasn't seen many winters like the winter of 2017-18. The years 2011 and 1978 come to mind.
"I'm sure there will be some heavy losses on certain places that just get trapped by the snow," Peterson said.
On the positive side, ranchers are thankful for the moisture because it will produce grass for the cattle this spring and summer.
"Everybody is coping the best they can, and we're used to it," Peterson said. "This is tough country. You're kind of prepared. Maybe not quite for this. But neighbors and everybody does what they can to help each other. It's still yet to be determined the true impacts I think as far as death loss with cattle."
Michaels, the rancher north of Cut Bank, said 20-below zero, 40-to-50 mph wind days have been common this winter.
"It's hard on animals," Michaels said. "It's hard on everything. Makes me wonder if I should have a new job."
Michaels climbed on a tractor and drove to a drifted-in stack of hay bales, each one weighing about 500 pounds. He dug out two snow-covered bales with a bale spear attached to the front of the tractor and set them aside.
One at a time, he delivered the bales to 100 head of cattle in a corral where he rolled them out like a sleeping bag, bumping them forward as the hungry cows hustled over and fell into line to feed.
"I've fed a tremendous amount of hay this winter, more than I have in a long time," Michaels said.
Feed costs are double what they are in a normal winter, he said.
He's feeding his cows 35 pounds of hay per day, which will increase to 50 pounds a day per cow/calf once calving begins.
In a normal winter, cattle graze in winter pastures and Michaels supplements that with 12 pounds of hay per cow a day.
This year, "They couldn't find grass if they wanted to up here."
Piles of snow dot the property at Glacier Hutterite Colony, Michaels' neighbor.
"There's a lot of snow in the country, hard snow," said the colony's Dan Wurz, 72. "You don't dare drive off in some places."
The colony raises both milk and beef cows and also grows wheat. Each day, the winds create drifts that need to be plowed out again.
"We've had wind here," Jason Wurz said. "You don't have a clue."
One day, a teacher from Cut Bank that visits the colony stopped eight miles away because of poor visibility and called for help. Colony members reached the vehicle and drove the teacher back to Cut Bank.
Michaels said his fuel expenses also are 75 percent higher than they are in a normal winter because he's spending so much time on the tractor moving snow.
Some days he spends six or seven hours a day just clearing snow from roads on the ranch and the main road leading to it.
"When I was a little kid we used to have winters like this," said Michaels, 42. "I just think people forget."
"Right now I'm waiting for the global warming thing to kick in," he said with a laugh.
Michaels can take the snow, he said. It's the wind and cold temperatures that have made the winter of 2017-18 stand out. In February, the winds howled 50 mph to 80 mph at times.
"But it's Cut Bank," Michaels added. "We've got wind."
The Glacier Wind Farm can be seen from his ranch. A sign next to a penguin in Cut Bank, 15 miles to the south, bills the community as "the coldest spot in the nation."
As dry as it was in the region last fall, Michaels appreciates the moisture despite the severe conditions.
"This is going to be great for grass," he said.
Kari Lewis, a Montana State University extension agent in Glacier County, said ranchers around Browning, Heart Butte, Babb and East Glacier "just keep getting hammered" by storms with the month of February "horrendous" for their operations.
Last year, many farmers didn't plant winter wheat in the fall because of a severe drought.
Now, with the additional moisture, she expects them to plant more pulse crops and spring wheat this spring where they chose not to plant winter wheat last year due to the drought. That could prolong seeding because they will have more acres to plant in the spring, she said.
"I will say farmers will be later getting into the fields than normal due to the amount of snow we have," Lewis said. "But at least there's going to be a fair bit of moisture there which is promising."
Keven Bradley, a wheat farmer near Cut Bank, said the poor condition of the roads has made it more difficult to get grain delivered to elevators in Cut Bank, Sweet Grass and Shelby. Farmers have set delivery periods when they must deliver grain stored in their bins to market, which includes winter deliveries. The biggest hurdle for farmers has been winds causing drifts making roads impassable and grain bins difficult to access.
"This has been one of the tougher ones in quite a while," Bradley said of the winter.