Severe weather surprises us as changes pop up too often


Severe winter weather continues to challenge beef herd owners, forecasters and young drivers. Quick changes in icy weather also stress school administrators deciding to cancel school.

After a decade of warming winters, I forgot what it’s like to scoop deep snow from sidewalks to a clear a path for the postman to reach my mailbox.

Weather forecasts I follow by cellphone are erratic this winter. No official tally, but I think they’ve been wrong far more than spot on.

Just this week with an outlook for light snow on Friday morning it piled up an unexpected four inches by afternoon. The depth caught me by surprise.

Then MU leaders issued class closing for 2 p.m. A week earlier, they’d called off classes a day before when a severe storm was forecast to arrive. In opinion of many, that storm wasn’t severe. It was bitter cold, but driving wasn’t difficult for wise drivers.

I see public school superintendents wait until early morning and drive the roads before calling off school.

On the early-out day, I asked a professor returning from a luncheon meeting downtown: “How is it out there?” His reply: “Snow-covered roads aren’t bad. Drivers are crazy.”

In a University town we have lots of young drivers. Those who’ve driven less than 10 years haven’t seen much driving on snow and ice. As a group, they tend to drive at speed limit or higher all the time. On ice that’s not wise.

I delayed leaving work after the early afternoon closing. A challenging spot on my route home is the hill by the hospital on Broadway. As I neared I saw flashing blue lights ahead. Police were slowing already slow traffic as a tangle of sideways cars was cleared from the hillside.

Some drivers had a teachable moment about driving on packed snow. 

Beef herd owners continue to face challenges in this calving season. I asked one, what’s the big problem? “Mud,” he replied. Another told me, “We cope with cold, not mud.” They want it to stay cold with no freeze and thaw.

All who’ve watched a cow with new calf marvel at the power of mama’s tongue to lick and quick dry her baby. Her licking urges the baby to get up to nurse its first meal of high-fat high-energy colostrum milk. That first meal jump starts survival.

This past month, many beef herd owners were shocked by sudden death of cows. The problem has been nitrates in bad hay baled last fall after two years of drought. Lushest growth was high in nitrogen.

Plentiful rain brought a surge of growth. To boost production some applied extra nitrogen fertilizer. A blessing of quick growth carried a downside. Nitrogen created nitrates in grass stems.

A cow rumen digesting fiber turns nitrates into nitrites. That’s  normal. But a surge of poison overflows into the blood. Nitrites block uptake of oxygen in blood. No oxygen. No life. Death comes quickly overnight. Unknown hay should be tested before feeding.

Interviewing a toxicologist at the MU diagnostic lab, I asked: Where are most cow deaths occurring. He wisely replied: “Where there are the most cows.”

An MU beef nutritionist has advice. Adding starchy grain, such as corn, to the diet speeds rumen digestion. That uses more nitrates which are needed.

Before adding starch to a hay diet, best to ask an area Extension livestock specialist for guidance. A rumen takes time to adjust to a ration change. New microbes must grow.

How do we get needed lessons to more beef herd owners? 

Weather related problems face farmers all the time. It’s just different in severe weather.

I saw what I thought was a good-news headline: “Cold winter weather boosts beef prices.” That sounded great until I read the story. Severe cold has dropped carcass weights. Now buyers need more calves coming into feedyards to make up for those losses.

Even the groundhog flunked forecasting. Send your weather insights to


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