Early March on the family ranch is a pretty tough time and location to beat, as far as Ray Peterson is concerned.
Bouncing across rolling hills of blue grama and buffalo grasses northeast of Nunn, Colo., in a flatbed Ford F-250, Peterson can't help but grin and chuckle just a bit as he checks out the new additions on his pastures.
"I think it's my favorite time of the year," he said, looking out the driver-side window at the dozens of newborn, red angus calves on his land. The babies born a couple weeks ago were chasing others similar in age, while the calves who first fell to the ground just a day or two earlier were cuddled next to their mothers, or hunkered down in any brush they could find, doing what they could to avoid the winter chill in the air.
It's calving season - for Peterson and beef producers everywhere - and not even the freezing temperatures that afternoon, the whipping winds or the gray, hanging clouds seemingly scraping the tops of the hills to the south - could force the subtle smile away from his face.
"They're pretty funny little characters," said Peterson, whose heifers, as of Friday, had given birth to 34 calves - the first one born Feb. 6. And 128 more are expected to appear on his pasture through the spring. "There's a lot of other parts of the job that can be difficult, or not as enjoyable ... but I always like being around them."
Not that it's all easy-going - one of his calves didn't survive its delivery Wednesday, despite the efforts of an onhand veterinarian.
For Peterson, what enhances the experience of chasing down and tagging newborn calves - duties he's executed since his youth - is doing the job within eyesight of the house in which he grew up and which his grandfather built in the 1930s, he said last week.
But while the tradition of calving season can be enjoyable, even nostalgic, for those who take part in it year in and year out, there's another side to the season, as well: one of industry and economics.
Although they have no way of knowing it, the calves being born on Peterson's land this year are joining the U.S. beef-cattle industry at a pivotal time, experts say. This year is one in which the U.S. herd is estimated to be its smallest since the 1950s, and - because of that and an increased demand for beef around the world - prices for cattle are at record highs and expected to continue climbing.
And because of the profit incentives in place now for beef-cattle producers - at the start of the year U.S. feedlots were paying producers 55 percent more for steers than they were three years ago - 2012 looks to be a year when the downsizing of the U.S. beef-cattle herd comes to an end.
Producers started downsizing their herds about six years ago, when feed prices significantly increased but cattle prices were weak. The downsizing was kicked into overdrive by the record drought in the southern plains last year, which forced many farmers and ranchers to sell their herds into slaughter early because they couldn't feed them or provide them water.
However, starting this year, said Jim Robb with the Denver Marketing Information Center in Denver, that trend is likely to start turning around.
Numbers provided by the Colorado Agricultural Statistics Office indicated that, at the start of this year, Colorado ranchers had held back 35,000 more heifers from slaughter than they did a year ago. They're keeping that livestock on their ranches for breeding and expanding their herds, Robb explained.
At the start of the year, there were 749,000 beef cows in Colorado - a 3-percent increase from the previous year.
Nationally, there are about 30 million cows. Heading into this year, the U.S. beef-cattle population had shrunk 13 out of the last 15 years.
But Robb said he anticipates the rest of the country to soon follow Colorado's lead.
"This will really be a pivotal year for the industry ... one where we might see the downsizing trend start to reverse," he said, noting that Mother Nature will play a big part in whether that is achieved, just as last year's drought had a huge impact on the cattle industry. "A shift like this is a multi-year process, but conditions are right for this year to potentially be a big one.
"This might be the year where ranchers get enough money in their pockets, and have enough incentive, to make expansions a reality."
Back at his ranch in Nunn, Peterson - on the board of directors for the Weld County Livestock Association - explained how he's increased his total beef herd to 200 head from the 60 cows he had just four years ago.
Just as Texas ranchers were devastated by last year's drought, the 2002 record drought in Colorado had significantly diminished the Peterson family operation in the early- and mid-2000s. Like every year, Peterson said most of the calves born this season will stay on the family ranch until they hit about 600-700 pounds - likely sometime around November - before they're sold to a feedlot and beefed up, adding another 300-400 pounds before they go to slaughter.
But like many other producers are doing now, Peterson said he plans to hold some of his newborn heifers back on the ranch - to produce red angus calves by this time next year.
For now, though, he'll just enjoy cruising his family pastures, searching for and tagging this season's new calves - several being born on some days.