Writing on the Range

Calving in the Snow

Calving in Snow

Spring snowstorms make a cattle rancher’s workday long, unpredictable, frustrating and fulfilling.

In the cycle of beef production, calving is the worst. 

Based on bull turnout, my cows were set to begin calving on March 15. When we preg-checked last fall, the vet confirmed we were on that pace. March 11, we started having calves. On March 15, the first storm of what became the second-snowiest March in my state’s history hit. Until April 1, there was no bare ground visible. 

The past two weeks have been nothing but bringing “springers” (cows and heifers about to calve) to the pens as blizzards blow, trying to keep brand new baby calves warm and dry, and plowing paths to get hay out to the cows

Now, before I complain too much, we’re used to this sort of weather and are well-equipped for it. We can almost always get the job done, but there’s no question when feet of snow are on the ground and temps are below freezing that chores which normally take a couple of hours take all day. Here’s a typical spring calving morning:

Calving in Snow
Managing cattle during winter, especially during calving, makes a rancher’s job unpredictable.
Photo by Ross Hecox

The wind and snow blew all night. I wake up to 4-foot drifts and no bare ground. It’s stopped snowing, but there’s no way I can get to the cows with the pickup and bale bed, the drift across the road is too deep. Nonetheless, the cows are emerging from the windbreak, waiting for their handout. No problem, grab the tractor. As I push the shop door open, I realize the snow has drifted in a new way and the door is stuck. It takes an hour to dig it free. 

Making my way to the tractor, I see the extension cord laying loose on the floor. How did I forget to plug the tractor in? While the block heats, I may as well check on the springers I put in the calving barn last night. Sure enough, one’s started the process. As she struggles, I can hear the cows at the gate begin to bawl for their breakfast.

While she works on it, I check on the horses. Wouldn’t you know it, the breaker for all the water tank heaters tripped in the night, so ice chopping gets added to my morning chore list. From the electric box I can see the cows staring at me. 

At least the tractor starts easy, but it’d be good to let it run for a minute while I check on the calving cow. There’s a leg out (!), but it’s a back leg. An hour and a half later I’m wet and sticky to my armpits. The calf is stunned by his traumatic entry into the world and can’t stand on his own. Meanwhile, his mother is not stunned—insulted is perhaps the better word—by me and her calf. I let her out thinking she’d lick him off, but instead she runs me up the fence and is hooking her calf before I can get her to chase me back behind the gate so I can catch her head in the stanchion … again.

The calf is probably going to be okay, but he’s too weak and in too much shock to nurse. The best thing to do is milk the cow and drench him. I can tell she wants to kick me, so I manage to avoid that, but her tail—full of excrement and afterbirth—whacks me straight across the face just as a good stream of milk is coming. Taken aback, I let my guard down and she cow kicks me in the thigh and I drop the milk pail. 

After a while (time flies when you’re milking a first-calf heifer) she’s milked and starting to calm down. The calf is drenched and dried. Maybe this afternoon he’ll have some energy to try it on his own. 

Those cows are still looking over the fence at me, so I trudge back through the drifts to the tractor—which is nearly out of diesel from running for the past two hours while I played vet/nursemaid. So I fill it up, grab a bale of hay and start feeding the cows. It’s hard to tell who’s more relieved to finally have the first chore of the day done: me or the cows. Then I check my phone and it’s only 2:30 p.m. Guess I missed lunch.

It’s in these moments that I wonder why I’m knocking myself out for such meager returns. Why am I working for these cows rather than them working for me? But as the snow melts, so do my frustrations. Chores get easier again, and it doesn’t hurt that we got all this moisture just at the right time.

As the drifts slowly shrink, I turn out the cows I had penned up to calve. Before long, I’ve got a pasture full of pairs. Then, one day, as I open the gate to bring hay to them, I pause. Half the calves are bedded down in yesterday’s leftovers, the other half are bucking in playing in the sunshine. The little calf I pulled is nursing at his mother’s side. She side-eyes me suspiciously.

A sudden wave of satisfaction comes over me and I’m ready for the next storm.

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