Creative Calf Shelters

This North Dakota rancher uses innovative approaches to help his herd weather snowstorms.

Winter and spring snowstorms can be bone-chilling cold in the rugged western North Dakota rangelands where Wayne Gerbig operates a commercial Angus-based herd with his wife Karen and their three children. Even though they don't begin calving until late March, Gerbig has come up with some inventive ideas to help protect newborn calves from cold wind and snow.

Most notable is the transformation of two old school buses into calf shelters. Gerbig says he'd seen the idea work well on another ranch, so when he was able to purchase two old buses from a local town he decided to give it a try.

To create the calf shelter, he removed the metal floor, as well as the engine and hood section of the bus. Round oil pipe (2-⅞-in. in diameter ) was then mounted along the bottom sides of the bus to make it easier to move around. Calves can enter the bus shelter through the front opening where the hood and engine were once attached. The original windows were left in the bus and can be opened if it gets too warm inside. The side and back doors, which Gerbig uses if he needs to enter the shelter, are kept closed.

Gerbig has used the buses for nearly 10 years and reports that they provide good protection for calves.

“What I like about them is they don't blow away,” he says. And, because of the windows, the shelters are well lit compared to other calf shelters. As a result, calves seem to utilize them more, and it's easier for Gerbig to see if any animals are in the shelter.

He typically puts a few square bales inside the bus for bedding. When the shelters are in use, he also places a piece of plywood in the windshield area above the front opening, and says, “I can slide that down to block the opening, so that I can go inside the bus to doctor a sick calf if necessary,” he explains.

Gerbig's recycling innovation didn't end with the calf shelters. He put the rest of the bus to use, as well, using the engine in one of his farm trucks and making a windbreak out of the floor he removed from the bus.

More Calf Protection

Calves can find additional protection in the natural woody draws that run through Gerbig's hilly calving pastures. A few years ago, he fenced several treed areas to keep the cows out during calving. But, by raising the bottom wire, Gerbig has found that calves will slip into the trees for protection during driving winds and snowstorms.

Gerbig says, “We fenced the cows out of the trees in our calving pastures because the herd is kept in such a concentrated area. In just the last couple years, we've seen a lot of understory and shrubs re-establish in the fenced-out draws, which give great shelter to the young calves.” Gerbig plans to fence a few more draws as a natural solution for calf protection. He'll do it with electric wire because it's quick to construct.

While this fencing strategy has worked well, Gerbig says he doesn't advocate fencing all woody draws. “In our summer pastures, we've been able to graze areas and keep the draws healthy with proper range management,” he says.

A Cake Feeder, Too

Gerbig's most recent winter survival tool is a homemade portable auger feeder to deliver cake and byproduct feedstuffs to cows on the range. Using an old combine hopper, he shortened the unload auger on the hopper. He then attached a hydraulic motor, which runs off the hydraulics of a tractor. Gerbig built a metal framework underneath the hopper so it would stand upright.

The feeder can be moved by sliding a bale fork under the stand and lifting the entire unit. “We've used it for feeding grain into a feed bunk or to feed cake to cows on range. We are able to set the feeder down in the pasture, so we can use the bale fork to feed hay,” he says.

Gerbig got the idea from similar feeders available in Canada. “They sell those for a lot of money,” he says, and adds that his homemade version works well, and was used a lot last winter.

Kindra Gordon is an agricultural freelance writer based in Spearfish, SD.