To understand my life you must understand calving, as
calving season is the peak season in a ranch cowboy's life.
In Montana, most ranches are termed cow/calf operations -
the herd of cows is maintained year-round to produce a new
crop of calves every year. The bulls are put in with the
cows at a deliberate time in the summer so that the calves
will arrive during a pre-determined two-month period in the
I hedge a little on the term "spring". Depending on the
operation, calving begins anywhere from mid-January to
mid-April. And depending on the year, the snow, wind, and
extreme cold come intermittently at any time during that
same period. Thus, weather is always an important factor in
Cows are reasonably self-sufficient. For half the year
they wander around eating the grass that grows underfoot.
They keep track of their calves, which nurse whenever they
like. In the fall the calves are sold to generate the year's
income. In the winter the cows eat hay that is spread on the
ground daily. In the spring they lay down and push out a new
calf, usually without help. Outside of an occasional sick or
lame animal, cows don't require much individual handling
throughout most of the year.
But during calving season the cowboy operates under the
sovereignty of Murphy's First Law: "Whatever can go wrong -
For that reason, the cows are brought in close to the
buildings in preparation for calving. In better-managed
operations, those cows showing to be nearest to calving -
the "heavies" - are cut out from the herd and put in a
smaller field adjacent to the calving shed. A smaller
'heavy' bunch makes it much easier to check for problems,
and a smaller bunch can be put in a shed if necessary.
The job of "cutting out heavies" must be repeated every
few days to be sure that everything calves near the shed,
and it's a pleasant job - if done ahorseback. The cows must
be cut out individually, and they can be quite determined to
get back to the herd. With a good horse, this can be quite a
fun operation. Afoot - or on a poor horse - the job is just
In addition to the 7 days a week feeding regimen that has
been going on since the first of the year, calving is a
24-hour-a-day process. Cows are usually checked every couple
of hours around the clock. Smaller operations utilize Ma,
Pa, Grandma, and the bigger kids to make at least one of the
checks at night. Bigger ranches often hire a "night man", as
well as extra help for a couple of months. When the weather
turns bad it can turn into an "all hands on deck" affair to
keep everything alive.
A new calf enters the world feet-first, as if diving out
of the womb, weighing in the neighborhood of 70 pounds. And
that's when things can begin to go wrong. If anything but
the front two feet try to come out first, or if the calf is
much larger than 70 pounds, things will generally hang up.
A good cowboy is checking his cows every two hours and
watching for the signs of imminent birth. A cow in labor
will be restless, may get up and lay down, and walks with
her tail outstretched behind her. If the weather is
moderate, she is allowed to calve outside - the cowboy makes
note of her and continues to check back with her until she
delivers. If the weather is cold or stormy he may put her in
a shed to calve.
As long as the labor is normal, it is better to leave a
cow alone. But when it becomes apparent that things are not
progressing, the cowboy must step in and help. He will don a
long plastic obstetrical glove to examine the birth canal
and determine the size and position of the calf. Likely he
will go in next with an obstetrical chain that is several
feet long and similar to a dog's choke collar.
If one or both front feet are back he will loop the chain
on them and pull them into the correct position. Sometimes
the calf is just too big, and the cow needs help to expel
him. Or the hind feet may be presenting.
Next comes the calf puller - a pipe about four feet long
with a yoke at one end to straddle the cow's butt, and a
ratchet to apply traction to the calving chains.
That may sound simple, but getting the chains looped
around a foot that is at arm's length down inside the cow
can be a frustrating and time-consuming ordeal. The shed is
seldom warm, and there are always blood, manure, and
amniotic fluid present. The cow is rarely grateful for the
help. Few calving sheds have the benefit of warm water to
wash up after a cowboy plays midwife.
When the calf finally does arrive, he is soaking wet. And
that is the second thing that can go wrong. An attentive
mother immediately arises and begins to lick him off with
her big, rough tongue. The licking both stimulates the calf
and removes the excess moisture. Most calves are up and
sucking within a couple of hours, still "wet behind the
ears". A brand new calf can stand an amazing amount of cold
if he has been cleaned up by his mother and has a belly full
But sometimes the mother doesn't get right up. Without
that stimulation from licking, a calf may never take his
first breath. And sometimes the cow thinks no more of that
new calf than if she had just dumped a pile of manure,
wandering away to eat. If it is cold and/or snowy the calf
can quickly become hypothermic with his hair still
completely soaked in fluid.
In cold weather a cowboy can't loose much time in getting
a wet calf to the barn. Every ranch has some kind of sled
contraption to pull behind a horse or pickup. I have carried
in my share of slimy calves draped over the saddle in front
of me. Unless he is in really bad shape, a new calf will
only lay across the saddle for so long before he starts
struggling. They are hard to get up on to a wary horse in
the first place; then the rider has to maneuver up behind
them. Calves don't balance very well over a saddle, and
there isn't a good way to hold on to them. They can reach up
with a hind foot and put it in an uncomfortable place, or
push themselves over the top and off the other side.
Once the calf is in the shed, the cow must be brought in.
Most cows will remain where the calf was born, sniffing the
ground and bawling. Some just wander off and disappear into
the herd, requiring a search. In neither case is the cow
willing to accompany the cowboy to the barn, and a good
cowhorse becomes important. Calving sheds have a number of
"jugs" - small pens usually about 12 feet square where a
problem cow/calf pair can be isolated for a couple of days
until the calf is strong and the pair are firmly bonded.
The next challenge is to be sure the calf is sucking.
Some calves seem to be born without the instinct to search
out a teat. Sometimes the cow will kick at the calf when he
tries to suck. Occasionally the waxy plug that seals the
teat is too tight for the calf to dislodge. And sometimes
the cow has mastitis, or simply no milk at all.
Every operation has nipple bottles for feeding calves,
and stomach tubes for calves that are too weak to suck.
Morning and evening the cowboy must work through the jugs,
helping this calf to suck, feeding that one, restraining a
cow, doctoring, and generally making sure that everything in
the shed gets something to eat.
Nearly every ranch ear-tags their calves. The tags
provide a way to identify the calf and link him to a mother.
If this is done in the first 24 hours, the job can be done
afoot. After a couple of days it takes a lariat to catch the
There is always a percentage of death loss at birth -
ranging from 1 to 10% - leaving some cows without calves to
raise. And there are always orphan calves - twins, or calves
whose mothers are weak, lame, sick, un-motherly, or just
plain mean. The orphan calves are grafted on a good young
cow who has lost her calf.
Cows recognize their own calf out of the hundreds around
them by their smell, and most cows will not let any other
calf suck. So grafting can be a challenge. It takes about
three days of nursing for the smell of the cow to permeate a
new calf. A guy can stand threateningly over the cow while
the calf sucks twice a day for those three days, or he can
skin her dead calf and fasten the hide over the graft calf
and attain instant results.
As the calves become stronger it is beneficial to cut
those older pairs out of the calving field. That serves the
dual purpose of clearing the "clutter" of calves from the
calving field, and throwing them out into a bigger area
where there is less chance of disease transmission. Those
"outside" pairs must be checked daily to be sure every calf
is healthy and getting enough to eat, and every ranch has to
deal with "scours" - diarrhea in the calves. These are two
more jobs that are done more efficiently from ahorseback. .
Many modern ranches use pickups and four-wheelers
year-round. There have been years when I worked on purebred
outfits and handled all the cattle afoot. But I find it much
more efficient to spread the cattle out over a bigger area
where the job can't be accomplished without a horse. Without
the stress of confinement and the accompanying accumulations
of manure, problems are cut in half. I have made it a point
whenever possible to work where horses are an integral part
of the operation, and calving time for me has always been a
horseback time of year.
Calves have to be caught for tagging and doctoring. After
the first few days they can become frisky enough to evade a
man afoot - and that's when a horse comes in handy again.
Occasionally a cow will become separated from her calf -
another excuse to rope the little booger instead of chasing
him all over the ranch. When scours get into a herd there
can be a dozen or more calves that need a daily dose of
But using a good horse takes skill - and making a good
horse takes even more. Building efficient levels of skill
takes time for both horse and rider, and those skills
deteriorate with disuse. Few modern ranchers have known the
pleasure of a top quality cowhorse, and choose instead to
rely on the "Japanese Quarter Horse" made by Honda.
As one friend told me: "You get your first 4-wheeler to
do the irrigating, and you find out how effective it is for
running the horses in to the corral. Then one day you figure
you could be there and back on the 4-wheeler in less time
than to catch a horse - and that's the beginning of the end.
One day you really need a horse, but he's so out of shape
you can't get the job done. And it's all downhill from
Everyone is happy to see warmer weather come. As the snow
melts, the calves require less vigilance and the cows
require less feed. The days are longer and fewer layers of
clothing are necessary.
Next comes branding. It takes several people about two
minutes per calf to run each one into a chute where he is
branded, maybe castrated and dehorned, and given
vaccinations. It takes half that long with a good crew to
rope and drag the calves to the fire for the same operation.
It really isn't nearly as labor-efficient to rope the
calves, but it's a lot more fun. And branding is a hot job
that requires a lot of beer!
On a big ranch a man can be horseback for hours a day
during calving, every day from the beginning of calving in
March until the herd is moved to summer range in June. He
can start calving on a green-broke colt and finish up the
season having turned him into a cowhorse. During the time
between when the cows are first brought in from the winter
pastures until they are turned out on summer range a cowboy
has spent many hours riding, cutting, and roping. The next
phase of the seasonal nature of ranch work is haying -
riding around and around in circles on a dusty, greasy,
noisy machine - and the saddles sit gathering dust in barn
while the horses get fat on new grass.
From my perspective, the cows aren't really making you
money anyway - the only reason I choose to raise cows is to
keep my horses busy. So if you don't use horses in your
operation, you'd just as well sell the ranch and invest in
something that does make a profit.
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