Spring calving ripe with good days, tough days

Story and photos by Laura Nowlin.

Calving season.  That wonderfully anxious time of year – when will the first calf come? What will the weather do?  

My husband and I run a cow-calf operation with a lease from my parents on a place north of Winnett, in Central Montana.  Our heifers started calving March 23 and our cows started April 8. We keep the heifers in a pasture close to the house and bring them in at night in order to keep a closer eye on them.  My husband and I take shifts checking.

Feeling good! A mama follows her buckin’ baby in to feed.

I take the early morning shift.  My alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m. I roll out of bed, pull on my muck boots, grab a flashlight and head out through the garage – pausing to check on the new chicks in the trough, petting the dogs, who don’t even get up, and saying “hello” to the cat, who follows me to the corral.  I step outside, taking a deep breath of the crisp morning air and behold the sky, ablaze with stars. The vastness of early morning on the prairie never ceases to leave me in awe. Most mornings, in the few hours before daylight, the calmness is unrivaled, as if Earth’s creatures lay in wait for the day to come – a calmness that permeates my tired mind – until the cat reminds me that she’s here too and that there are things to do.

Not all of earth’s creatures wait for the sun and most mornings. If I pause to pay attention, I clearly hear the hoot of an owl, the occasional chorus of coyotes, and the rustle of water in the nearby creek.

Literally on the other side of the yard fence, it only takes 30 seconds to walk to the heifers in the corral and the morning check only takes a few minutes – handy for checking heifers, not so handy if you prefer that your house and yard not smell like cows. Oh, well, it only lasts for six weeks in the spring. The gentle heifers generally don’t take notice of either me or the cat. The one wild one usually just keeps a wary eye on me, ready to run off if I get too close. As I wrap up the morning check and start to think about the tasks awaiting me at the house, a loud crash from the barn startles the otherwise silent morning.  Thinking, “that can’t be good,” I head to check on a couple of pairs in the barn.

Sure enough, Big Brutus fell in the feed trough and can’t get out. Born a few days ago, Brutus entered the world an already giant calf (hence the name Brutus) and his poor first-time mama isn’t producing enough milk for him. We want to be sure he thrives, so we are trying a few different things to get him enough to eat. This includes “grafting” him onto a new cow whose calf died (grafting is a form of adoption for cows). We paired up Brutus and his new mama about 16 hours ago.  They both show interest in each other, but so far Brutus only nurses when we put her in a head catch and help him latch onto her.

Brutus gets some dinner.

Right now, he flails in the trough, trying to get out and she looks on wide-eyed with alarm. I wrestle Brutus out of the trough – his hunger apparent as he tries to latch onto my coat.  I shove him in the cow’s direction and he immediately latches onto a front quarter and begins nursing on his own. Success! The cow continues to be a bit confused about it all, so I reward her with some cake and watch to see how it goes. She’s not sure that she likes Brutus, suspecting that he is not actually her calf, but she cautiously allows him to nurse anyway. Feeling fairly accomplished, considering it is only 5:30 a.m. the cat and I wander back to the house.

The meadowlarks rise with the sun – prominently voicing their hello to the day – and the rest of the world awakens as well. After our kids are off to school, my husband and I split ways to tend to morning chores.  He checks for new calves in the cows and rolls out hay – feeding will only last a few more days as the spring growth comes on stronger every day.

A group of calves take a rest out of the weather.

I take care of the pairs in the barn – hay, cake, water, cleaning pens – and herd the heifers out to their pasture for the day. Checking pairs in the pasture tops the list of my favorite chores. The calves buck and chase each other, stirring up the smell of new, green grass. The meadowlarks sing their song at the top of their lungs from a perch on the calf shelter. Happy and healthy – it brings a smile to everyone’s face!

Not every day consists of rainbows and skipping to the barn, of course. Tough days follow good days.  Sometimes the calf dies, or the cow dies, or the spring snow storm drives the herd into a corner and multiple calves are trampled. Long days combined with a long list of tasks equals stress and exhaustion – for bodies, minds and relationships.  A rancher friend’s Dad told him, “I just feel like we owe it to the cattle to give them the best shot at life that we can.” And we agree, so we work through the tough days to get to those bright and beautiful days.

Kids and calves- a pretty fun combination.

Before we know it, June will arrive and those mama cows will head out to summer pasture with a new herd of babies by their sides

Laura Nowlin is a wife and mother of two, working, living, and playing on a little piece of paradise in central Montana, north of the town of Winnett. She and her husband ranch. She is also a part-time coordinator for the Musselshell Watershed Coalition. Between the two of them, they serve in seven community groups. Laura is a board member of the Winnett ACES (Agricultural Community Enhancement and Sustainability).

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