A spring storm during the height of calving season
"You can't just give up," columnist Jessie Veeder's dad was told by his own father during one of those days when the cattle were in danger on the ranch.
WATFORD CITY, N.D. — As I type this column, the snow is whipping sideways outside of the windows and across the Plains. It’s mid-April and we’ve just started calving, three calves on the ground and the rest safe and sound in their mommas' bellies as we feed extra hay in a low and protected spot on the ranch, waiting, watching and wondering how it will all shake out, this wild weather they’re predicting for us.
By the time you read this, we will know how we all fared. We need the moisture desperately, but this is not the ideal time to be born.
A drought is ended by a calf-killing blizzard. It sounds rough, harsh, but this is the part of agriculture, of ranching, of cowboying that isn’t glamorous. They don’t put the cowboy in a Scotch cap and Carhartts digging a half-frozen newborn calf out of a snowbank on the postcards they sell you in the gift shop in Montana. It doesn’t make a beautiful oil painting, but so often out here there’s more to the drama than the lovely sunset.
Without rain, we have no grass. Without grass, we sell the whole herd. Without the herd, the story changes. Dramatically. That doesn’t make a good inspirational quote.
But it’s reality. This spring storm during the height of calving is the definition of gratefulness and fear walking hand in hand with us as we take another loop around the pasture in the feed pickup, unroll another bale, make sure we have the entryway and barn and milk replacer and extra fuel and tractor ready to help fend off the worst of it the best we can.
It’s the story my dad holds like a lump in his throat, the hot summer of scours that took nearly 90% of their calf crop. His father was fresh from a battle with cancer, feeble and shell-shocked, and my parents, they were hanging on to a dream that was literally dying right before their eyes.
In a particularly desperate moment, one where my dad, as a young man, helped his father work on another unresponsive calf, he offered that it might be time to give up. And his dad looked him in the face right then and said plain and stern, unflinching against the despair, “You CAN’T. You CAN’T just give up.”
My dad tells it, still humbled after all these years, and that lump appears in my throat, too. Maybe we were born with it there, waiting to remind us of the weight of the responsibility that grazes on our summer pastures, bunches up together in fence corners against the wind, rides her pony out in the round pen and runs wide open down the scoria road. Maybe we were all born with it there to remind us how fragile it is really, how small we can become in the scheme of it.
My parents, not yet in the middle of their 30s, packed up the little they had in that old trailer house and their two young daughters and left the ranch that summer, not knowing if or how they might ever return, how they might ever make it work. I was just about to turn 2 years old.
That lump, it’s in every rancher and farmer’s throat, or it’s a tightening in her chest, or the thing that wakes him in the early hours of the morning before the birds and the sun. The bad winter. The drought years. The hailstorm that wiped them out. The scours. The day he had to sell it all. The calf-killing storm.
But agriculturalists, we don’t hold the patent on hard times. And the weather, no matter how extreme, it’s never unexpected. We’re never surprised, we know how to batten down the hatches. And we know the stakes.
We keep them tucked up under our hats or in the pocket of our shirt, the one under the jacket and the wool vest and the winter coat, the one closest to the hearts that we carry out into the blinding, whipping wind, knowing when we get through this, the white will make the grass grow greener and that will be something to put on a postcard. That is your inspirational quote.
Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.