It’s calving time again
March 28, 2011
Isn’t that the title of an old country song that goes like this; It’s calvin’ time again you’re gonna miss me. I can see that far away look in your eyes… Well, maybe not. But it is calving time and that faraway look in the eyes of many ranchers is caused by sleep deprivation. It’s been several years since I’ve taken the heifer watch, sorted the heavies into the lot near the barn and run the really close ones in to the shelter and warmth of the barn.
It was the same, year in and year out and yet it was never monotonous, never boring and always filled with the wonder of new life, the miracle of birth. Nowadays the memory of it comes flooding back as we drive around the country and see all the new calves romping alongside their mothers. Watching a newborn calf find its legs and unsteadily wobble to its mama’s side for that first life-giving meal is the picture-perfect snapshot of nature and the defining image of the rewards of being a rancher.
I raised Black Angus and truly love the sight of a still-wet, curly haired calf with its big, black, blinking eyes laying curled in a bed of straw, steam rising from the warmth of recent birth as the new mama licks and sniffs and lows softly to her firstborn. These last couple of weeks, I’ve stopped to watch the Angus cattle in the pasture off Highway 30 between Bushnell and Kimball, Neb. Those little critters have seen sunshine and snow, hurricane force winds and calm pre-spring days. I’ve stopped to watch them scamper around in a game of tag, like school children on the playground as they romp and nudge and push while testing their legs and getting acquainted with each other. I’ve watched them huddle close to their mamas, snow packed on narrow backs that are bowed against the cold.
Yesterday, on a trip to Denver, we passed a sizable herd of Herefords in a calving pasture just east of the refinery in Cheyenne. In the brief space of time between 75 miles-per-hour and the snapshot in the brain that freezes the blur, I noticed the entire herd scattered across the pasture, some with calves at their sides, all turned and facing the same direction, all watching the only cow that lay on her side, all watching and waiting. And I wondered if cows are as entranced with the miracle of birth as we humans are.
I also thought of the hundreds of people who pass by that pasture near Cheyenne and those who pass by the herd between Bushnell and Kimball who have never taken the heifer watch, have never checked the heavies and have never pulled a calf. If it’s cold and snowing and the wind cuts and stings like the rusty barbs of a five-wire fence, they might remark about those poor babies left out in the cold. When the weather’s nice and the calves are playing they might remark about how cute the baby calves are. But they don’t see the other side.
I’d like to tell them about calving in February when a sudden Canadian cold front comes barreling down the front range of the Rockies. When a day that began at a balmy 30 degrees, suddenly drops to minus 15 and the driving wind pushes the chill to a numbing 30 below. Cows abandon their calves as they drift ahead of the storm to the nearest windbreak where they’ll hunker down for the duration. Some even stop, lay down with their backs to the wind, give birth, get up and walk away.
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The wind whips the snow into a blinding frenzy as you methodically search every square foot of a 640-acre pasture for the calves that are curled under the drifting snow, their noses tucked deep in their flanks, too cold to even shiver. You scoop them up in your arms, brush the ice and snow from their still wet hide and race against time as you rush them to the barn and continue the efforts that will hopefully save their lives. You place them in a warm bed of straw, a heat lamp overhead and vigorously rub with dry burlap bags to stimulate circulation in their legs and chest. You administer tube-fed infusion of supplemental colostrum for the needed first nutrients that they should have gotten from the mother, but did not. Then, with the hope that this one survives, you go out and search again.
I remember a storm when seven calves were brought in, only one survived and the following morning, in stiff curls of frozen flesh, three more were found that had been missed during the storm.
I still remember, with near nightmare clarity, the very first calf that I tried to save when I was just a small boy. The calf had been born and abandoned at the creek and its hindquarters had been lying in the freezing water. Dad brought the calf to the barn its hind legs stiff and unbendable at the joints. Dad handed me several old gunny sacks and instructed me to dry him off and keep rubbing until the calf was able to move its legs. I rubbed all night long and in the early morning fatigue of the all night vigil I did not notice that as the flesh thawed, the hide had peeled away. Dad didn’t have to say anything when he handed me the rifle. That was my introduction to mortality and the sometimes-harsh realities of animal husbandry. Sometimes that faraway look is exhaustion with a bit of despair around the edges.
But still there is the knowledge that you’ve done your best, the sense of pride in the ones you saved and the simple satisfaction that comes from being a part of the rancher’s rite of spring called calving. And you know that green grass is just around the corner.