One Good Cow After a Hard Winter

I was talking to a friend about the Livestock Indemnity Program the other day and it reminded me of a project I had helped with a long time ago. It was so long ago that the statute of limitations on mean tricks has expired so I can tell this story.

Now, the Farm Services Agency runs the Livestock Indemnity Program to reimburse ranchers who lose livestock in storms.

Back in the 1990’s, the federal government had no such program.

Yet, ranchers still lost the gamble of raising cattle when blizzards and floods hit, especially during calving season.

I was a new county agent, sitting at my desk on a rainy February Friday afternoon when my friend, Michelle, called.

“Lisa,” she said, “Thousands of cows are dying in North and South Dakota and eastern Montana in those blizzards. Those ranchers will go out of business. We need to give them some cows.”

That sounded like a good idea to me so we did.

At first, we asked the Farm Services Agency to organize our idea. The feds would be happy to do that – for a 60% cut of donations. Then we asked Montana State University. They would cut us a deal at 50 cents of every dollar.

Spending generous donations on overhead didn’t fit our philosophy so Michelle and I and a few others did it ourselves.

Over the course of nine months, we ended up gathering more than 900 pregnant cows and giving them to 62 different ranchers. We accepted cows or cash from every state in the nation except Hawaii and Alaska.

Tom Brokaw was anchoring NBC Nightly News at the time and he had a place near Livingston, Montana. He wanted to feature our One Good Cow program.

We thought we might get a few more donations if we were on TV so we agreed. Tom sent two photographers from California to follow us around for three days.

They were nice men, with their long hair and Hawaiian shirts. Michelle and I tried to be gracious, but after three days we were tired of being tailed.

For their last frame, the photographers wanted the consummate, riding into the sunset on horseback shot.

Michelle had a bad back. I was pregnant. We had not ridden our horses all summer because we were busy shipping cows, but we agreed.

As the photographers squatted to get the right angle, we rode out about 300 yards.

Michelle leaned over and whispered, “Do you want to have some fun? Let’s whirl around and run our horses right over the top of them. At the last second, we can dodge.”

That sounded like a good idea to me so we did.

We spun our horses and spurred them. The photographers’ eyes enlarged at the very same rapid rate as their bodies tried to melt into the earth. Only the cameras, with shining whites of terrified eyes, showed up in the dimming evening light.

We laughed and spurred harder.

Then our horses started to buck.


As my horse buried her nose in the dirt and I scrambled to grab a rein and keep my feet in my stirrups, I thought “We’re going to get bucked off on national TV! And we deserve it, too!”

Michelle and I both managed to stay on – we both were highly motivated – and the photographers were gracious enough to edit that scene from their segment.

Apparently, the karma of our good intentions overcame our bad manners.

Today, Michelle still has a bad back, my son is a senior in college and the Farm Services Agency runs the Livestock Indemnity Program.

Life is not nearly as exciting, but ranchers can still take a gamble on weather they can’t control with a little safety net.

This year, when we have had only a single cold spell, but it lasted 34 days, my neighbors who have been calving might appreciate that safety net.

Lisa Schmidt