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A rancher’s reflections on Groundhog Day

Erica Louder for Progressive Cattle Published on 10 February 2020

As I write this blog, there is little going on for our ranch right now, other than the nightly chore of feeding cows. This time of year always feels like the proverbial calm before the storm. Our first official calving date is 10 days away. While feeding, we inspect and count cows to see who will be the first to “go.”

We are all eagerly waiting for that first calf to drop and to see what the next 12 months will bring. We calve early for our climate – if you ask me, a little too early. February is so unpredictable. You could have a sunny 45-degree day, then have 8 inches of snow drop overnight. But still, I think it’s an improvement from January calving. In our first couple of years, we started calving the second week in January. After the snowstorm of the decade, we pushed back a month the next year. As a small seedstock operation, we are hoping to make the most of the time and have our yearling bulls larger than the competition when we market them.

As I write these blogs, I tend to fall back on the theme of weather. The rhythms of a rancher’s life follow the calendar and the forecast. Many of us put great store in our ability to predict the weather. Maybe through the pain in our knee, the pressure in our head or, more appropriately, the rotation of the earth. I know few ranchers and fewer farmers who put much store in what the weatherman says. I thought I would continue that theme of weather skepticism and explore the trivial tradition of Groundhog Day.

Over the last two weeks, the weather in southern Idaho has turned from snow to clouds to rain to frozen rain. Feb. 2 followed the same pattern. At our ranch, the weather was cold and cloudy, no groundhog (or more like gopher) saw his shadow. The official groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, resident of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, by official report also did not see his shadow. By this action, the rodent predicted an early spring. According to the keepers of such useless information, this is only the 20th time since 1887 that the groundhog has made such a prediction.

If I put much sway in Phil’s lack of a shadow, I’m not sure an early spring would be welcome news. I associate spring with mud and wind (which seems contradictory, but I assure you they are not). I’d rather have my cows calve on frozen ground in 25-degree temps than in mud on 40-degree temps and 40 mile-per-hour wind gusts. However, I am sure if his prediction was the opposite, I’d be just as vehemently opposed to six more weeks of winter. Maybe old Phil could skip us right into May.

Apparently, the tradition of predicting the arrival of spring by a rodent is tied up in folklore. German immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries brought this folklore with them to Pennsylvania. The official tradition in the U.S. wasn’t created until 1887 at the whim of a newspaper editor (writers are always the problem). He sold his idea to a group of locals, who were thereafter called the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club. Annually the group, full of pomp and circumstance, complete with top hats and Pennsylvania Dutch accents, extract Phil from his lair midwinter to report to the world his findings on the arrival of spring.

According to the National Climatic Data Center, Phil's success rate is less than 40%. With that kind of record, you’d actually be better off betting against the house. Who knows, though, this Feb. 2 was more than a little bit auspicious. It was Groundhog Day, Superbowl Sunday, as well as a palindrome. I saw this last tidbit on Facebook. 02-02-2020 is the same backward and forward, apparently quite lucky. I may not believe in Groundhog Day predictions, but I am never opposed to a little luck going into calving season.  end mark

Erica Louder is a freelance writer based in Idaho.

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