Jan and Kim Wilkinson's story is the second in KFB's "Dealing with Disaster" series created by veteran farm journalist John Schlageck.The series features Kansas farmers and ranchers and their ability to rise above devastating disasters including the state's largest wildfire, an April blizzard and its impact on this year's wheat crop.
No cattleman ever wants to lose a single calf, yearling or momma cow. When a handful perish, the pain and anguish multiply. And when hundreds of cattle die in a late spring blizzard, it’s catastrophic.
Such a weather event occurred during the last weekend of April in southwestern Kansas. With snow moving into their ranch northwest of Scott City at daybreak, Jan and Kim Wilkinson rose from their beds with apprehension in the air.
They just turned out nearly 1,000 head of momma cows, calves and yearlings on summer grass in five different pastures. The nearly 4,000 acres of contiguous grass was located 40 miles south of their homestead on a place the Wilkinsons call the “ranch.”
Shortly after noon on Sat., April 29, Jan arrived at the ranch and found the cattle all present and accounted for. Although the wind and snow still swirled and pummeled the cattle, approximately 10 inches had fallen by the time he headed home that afternoon.
By sunset the next day, the flat western Kansas landscape looked quite different. The wind finally stopped, but now nearly two feet of heavy, white snow blanketed the ground.
Monday morning this unstable situation moved into utter chaos. Jan headed back to the cattle in his 4-wheel-drive pickup. His father-in-law was already on his way by tractor loaded with hay. Moving at a snail’s pace, the trip seemed to take forever.
When they arrived, snow drifts covered the four-wire fences and the cattle walked across pushed in a southerly direction by the wind. The cattle were scattered for miles.
During the next few days, the only way they could maneuver in the deep snow was by tractor or horseback. The pickup kept getting stuck.
“Those were long, frustrating days,” Jan recalls. “Every move we made seemed to take forever.”
Warm weather followed the blizzard. Most of the snow melted in less than a week. During this period, Jan counted 14 yearlings and three calves dead.
The cattle piled together during the teeth of the storm suffocating and trampling the younger stock. Another 300 head were unaccounted for.
“A few days later we learned the cattle had wandered more than 20 miles south and ended up north of Garden City,” Jan says. “A nearby farmer rounded them up and put them in a pen with water.”
They hauled feed to these cattle for a couple of days until they found time to haul them back to the ranch. With the livestock safely back at home, the Wilkinsons doctored some of them with antibiotics for pneumonia and snow blindness.
Six weeks after the blizzard the cattle continue to improve. Once the cattle were turned out on the grass they immediately turned from being dirty, rough and half sick to healthy stock again.
“I’ve heard it said that good green grass is the best medicine for livestock,” Jan says. “Cattle are resilient. With all the moisture from the snow, our grass is as lush and green as I can ever remember.”
Some of the aftermath of the blizzard still weigh on the Wilkinsons. Picking up the remains of the cattle that perished is never an easy task. Still, they count themselves lucky compared to some of their stockmen friends.
“We were blessed,” Kim says. “When we look back at what happened, it could have been much worse. Some lost so many cattle.”
After working 12- and 14-hour days for 10 days straight after the blizzard, some cattlemen ask themselves, “Why am I in this business?” Jan says.
“You run cattle because you love the animals,” he continues. “You can’t do this because it’s an easy job.”
One of the greatest rewards remains the help and support of others who helped them through the crisis without being asked.
“It’s just what they do,” Kim says. “Friends and neighbors helping each other when they’re in a bind. This spirit picks you up and puts you on your feet again. We couldn’t have made it without them.”
During the first weekend of June a “We survived the blizzard” party was held in Scott City. This event included livestock events like team roping and a dinner for all those who pitched in to help livestock producers after the blizzard.
“It’s our family's small way of saying thank you,” Kim says. “No one will take money for helping us out. We appreciate all they did.”
The Wilkinsons and other stockmen hope they won’t have to experience such a weather event any time soon. Jan’s hoping the next will occur in about 30 years – if it must happen.
“I’ll be old enough then to let my sons and others handle it,” he chuckles.
Fat chance of that happening either. If there’s a blizzard and he’s alive, he’ll help.
That’s what they do.