Springtime on the Ranch

Mamas and babies – calving time on the ranch. Image, Joan Chismire.

[SW Colorado | March 2020| By Erin Stadelman]

The best part of “spring has sprung” on the ranch is in the form of over 800 baby calves soon to arrive. Our calving season begins on February 15 and takes a long, arduous trail to May 15. The season of calving is long but very much worthwhile. I believe that, deep down, most cattlemen/women just love calving season. There are long nights and even longer days, but it’s worth the work. The hope rides on the next generation making a healthy entrance and growing to be productive members of the herd.

New calf on the Fisher Ranch. Image, Joan Chismire.

It’s not enough to be a simple observer of the cattle herd during calving season. The birth of any given calf can have so many complications. The cattlemen/women must stay vigilant and alert for any cow that may need some birthing assistance. The cowboys at the ranch begin by bringing “the heavies” into the calving corral. The entire herd must be sorted by expected due dates based on the dates of conception. It’s a simple calculation from the date the bulls are placed in the cow herd, plus or minus 283 days. An average gestation for domestic cattle is 279 to 287 days. Does that sound familiar to you women? It should…we women gestate for 280 days with our offspring. I don’t know how I feel about that fact, but I do know it’s not a flattering comparison.

The cows are separated by expected due and placed in pastures close to the calving barn. The calving barn houses small pens suitable for placing a new cow/calf pair for bonding or warming purposes. These calves arrive on their own time, and sometimes that time is the “dead of night” when the temperature outside is -5. Those calves and their mothers must be brought into the calving barn to ensure the calf stays warm and momma stays close. The calving barn also houses the necessary medicine/tools to assist in calf deliveries. Sometimes the cows have some trouble and the cattlemen/women must assist them.

Branding on the RRL Ranch. Image, Erin Stadelman.

The goal of everyone is to allow the birthing process to occur naturally to ensure a good bond between mother cow and calf in a natural environment. But that’s not always an option. There are times when a mother cow must be helped in birthing a calf to ensure life of both for this year and positive calving in years to come. A cattleman/woman will only “pull” a calf when lives are at stake. Pulling a calf is physically taxing both on the rancher and the mother cow and is the last resort in birthing cattle.

There are a few reasons to pull a calf. Those reasons include: lack of birthing progression after two hours of labor, calf too large for the birth canal, or the calf is in a “breech” or backward position. All of these reasons are life threatening for the calf and cow. Only an experienced cattleman/woman should ever attempt to pull a calf. The procedure requires the use of chains, a calf pulley, lubrication, strength, and patience. Without patience in assisted births, the calf could be lost or the cow may perish.

Roping in the calf pen. Image, Joe Westcott.

Roping in the calf pen. Image, Joe Westcott.

Calving can be a special bonding experience for a ranch family to be a part of the cow/calf. It’s never too soon to have your little cowboy/girl witness the arrival of a healthy baby calf. It’s also never too early to teach future cattlemen/women about proper calving techniques and birthing assistance. I hope you get the chance to tour the countryside and bear witness to the Best Part of Spring on your local ranches.