Boss Cow Blizzard

2013, October: Palmer, Alaska in the Matanuska-Susitna River Valley

I have a lover's quarrel with technology. On one hand, I love the life that I lead. I earn a living with the internet from my home and on my own terms. On the other hand, I get exasperated with the unquestioning embracement of all that is new in technology. One of the advancements that I do appreciate is weather forecasting, which has been enhanced by computer and satellite technology.

Today, we can see storms coming from a long way off - at least in the case of blizzards. Tornados still seem to hold the cards when it comes to deadly surprise. One such deadly surprise of a blizzard occurred in the spring of 1941.


1941, March: Near Hope, North Dakota in the Cheyenne - Goose River Drainage

My Mother would have been just short of her eleventh birthday. She and her two sisters, attended a township school about a mile from her parent's farm. Her uncle, a teenager himself, was living with her parents. In mid-morning, her uncle was listening to the weather on the radio. The report warned of an impending blizzard. Today, such a storm would be known days in advance. At that time, they had an hour or less of warning.

No vehicles were available. My mother's uncle set off at once on foot for the school. He arrived there within about 20 minutes . He immediately requested and was granted the custody of his nieces. Carrying my mother's youngest sister and leading the other two joined by hands, they made haste to return. After a half a mile or so of walking, the blizzard hit. It blew from the north west and as they were walking due west, it struck their faces and took their breath away. They struggled the last half mile, walking blindly but following the road and struggling to breath. They collided with the side of my grandparent's house without first seeing it. From there, they made their way mainly by touch to the door. About 120 people perished in that blizzard, many in their own farmyards.

Twenty-six years later I had an experience that has stayed with me ever since.

1967, April 30 - May 1. 10 miles east of the Missouri River on the Coteau du Missouri. Central North Dakota. (“Coteau du Missouri” – of French origin – refers to plateau east of the Missouri)

My Dad was a cow politician. Like any savvy administrator he took time to groom and provide perks to members of the highest level in the cow herd organization. In the evening, he would frequently get a bucket of ground feed and with a curry comb in his pocket, he would circulate amongst the boss cows. Each 'bossie' would get a taste of ground feed, which is as much a delicacy to a cow as chocolate is to my wife. As an extra treat the cow might get a few strokes with the curry comb. He frequently had names for each of them and they would recognize their names.

For those of you not schooled in the University of Cattle Sociology - let me help you throw off your shackles of ignorance. Our cattle herd was primarily cows (females). Bulls were segregated to be sold for breeding purposes or to be let into the herd only during breeding season. Steers (young bulls who had been castrated and raised for slaughter) were segregated also. Such a herd has a hierarchy and at the top of the hierarchy are the boss cows. Of a herd of a hundred or so, there might be five or six boss cows. Domination was frequently established when a boss cow mounted a subordinate.

On the 30th day of April 1967, I was plowing the “Big Hill”. The Big Hill was almost a half mile long and probably rose to a height of 30 or 40 feet in a quarter of a mile. I loved working at the top of that hill, because in a country where you can see for miles and miles, I could see for even more miles and miles. I was driving the 1941 LA Case tractor that my Dad had recently bought from a neighbor – no doubt, especially for me. The LA was built the last year before World War II temporarily halted the manufacture of privately purchased farm equipment. It was originally outfitted with iron pistons. By this time, the iron pistons were replaced with aluminum. The aluminum pistons gave the old LA relatively greater power.

The LA had a magneto, and therefore had no need for a battery and my father was too fiscally conservative to outfit it with a battery when it didn't need one. Consequently, it was started with a crank. The crank was permanently mounted at the front with the handle in an upright position. I would start it by placing my hand on the handle, with my thumb lying parallel to the handle “not around it for chrissake! You wanna break your hand?”, and then I would jump off of the ground so my entire 140 pounds was on the handle thusly rotating it. Started on the first turn every time. I loved that old LA. It was one of the few machines I ever had any real affection for and I haven't a clue as to why the magic happened. But when that tractor hit heavy pulling, it seemed to bellow to the skies: "Bring it on! Bring it on!".

As I would reach the south end of the Big Hill, I could see my neighbor Calvin working a field on his farm just across the road. Calvin was my age. A few years earlier his father had been diagnosed with heart disease. I guess there wasn't a lot that could be done and what could be done cost a lot of money. Calvin's dad Otto just kept farming until he died when Calvin was 16. Calvin just kept on farming, while going to school. He was the hardest working guy I knew.

I didn't have a watch with me, but when I saw Calvin heading home, I knew it was dinner time. He would never go home early unless the field was worked entirely, so I headed back too. On the way home, I could see the cow herd bedding down at the east side of the pasture. They were in a parcel of low ground that we called a "slough" - a low spot that in wetter seasons would hold water. The slough ran east and west across the property and angled towards the north.

The next day – May 1 – I woke up to a howling blizzard. As most blizzards do in that part of the world, it was blowing from the northwest. Visibility varied from a few yards to none. I could see that our Dad was worried. We were in the grips of a blizzard coming from the Northwest. Such storms late in the season are especially dangerous to cattle, since they are likely to be in pasture (as ours were that day) and also in calving season. My dad suggested that we take a tractor south to the pasture where the cattle were. We started out riding the highest-clearance tractor. We got about 100 feet before we were stuck. We proceeded south on foot, following the fence line. On a day with no snow, I could walk a mile in 15 minutes, especially if I were keeping up with my Dad. It took us a half hour to go a half mile in that blizzard, with snow that varied from knee deep to waist deep. And all the way, I was acutely aware of the wind at my back and that to get back, we would be walking into that wind.

We found the cattle at the very northwest corner of the pasture. An old homestead foundation sat on a little hill above the slough. The lower ground provided shelter and it was the closest to the farm that the cattle could get. All cows were bedded down close together and facing south east with their backs to the wind. The boss cows were at the northernmost edge of the herd, so they were the first that we encountered. They looked at us with a mixture of pleasure and irritation. They might have been glad to see us but also savvy enough to know that we were in jeopardy ourselves. After all, a 150 pound man loses heat a lot faster than a 1500 pound cow. And then, where would they get their ground feed if we were not around? I was anxious to head back myself. I was hot from the walk south and I wished to retain that body heat for the journey back.

My dad laughed. He said, "They're doing fine and I'm glad to know it." We headed back into the howling hell of the blizzard that was coming at us with everything it had. We traversed crab-style with our hands on the fence to keep us on course and our faces held away from the storm so that we could breathe. We got home, we got thawed out and sensibly we waited out the remainder of the blizzard indoors.

When the wind had started during the night, the boss cows had led the herd west by northwest, almost directly into the wind, not with the wind at their backs. Thus, they could get to that sweet combination of low ground and closest proximity to the farm. They did their job. It turned out that of over a hundred animals at pasture, we lost only two, who had not followed the herd, but had let the wind push them 'til they could go no further.

In the State of North Dakota, I would guess that several thousand cows died in that storm. With modern weather reporting – most if not all – of the big storms can now be predicted.

Since then, I have always thought hard about going with the wind at my back. Still, I've never been that good at following the herd. Don't tell me that cows are stupid. It was clear then and remains clear now, that these "dumb animals" were using strategic thinking. Had they not, they would have just drifted with the wind.

Author's notes :

Some might doubt that cattle could recognize that we might have been in jeopardy. They would be wrong. There are countless stories of cattle (as well as horses) recognizing disstress or injury or potential danger to a human. Here's a quick example. :

When I was a kid a neighbor of ours rolled his tractor and got pinned under it. We were his nearest neighbor and a mile away. He was weak and couldn't cry out very loudly. But there were cows nearby who sensed his predicament. The herd of 50 cows all started looing (bellowing) and that kind of sound carries for miles. My parents heard the cows, went to investigate and saved his life. Well, actually the cows saved his life.