Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — Kids and Calves

Most of my “stories” on this blog have been anecdotes from earlier years on the ranch, but this week I want to share a couple of details from our most recent calving season, this past April.

As a side note, calving in April is a relatively new thing for our cows. For 35 years we calved in January, to have the cows all bred in April, to our own bulls, before they went to summer range in the mountains (BLM land, shared by several ranches). During the past dozen years, however, we sold more and more of our cows to our son and his family, to help them get started in ranching. Eventually, we were down to just a small herd that we could keep at home during the summer, and we let our son use our range permit.

We calved in January for more than 35 years.

By keeping our cows at home, we could breed them whenever we wanted, and we decided to calve when it wasn’t so cold! April weather is unpredictable in our area, however, and we’ve often been glad we still have a good calving barn. For instance, this year we had so much stormy, wet weather in April (with a lot of wind and snow) that all but two of the cows had to calve in the barn.

Even in April, most of our cows had to
calve in the barn, due to nasty, cold, wet weather.

Last fall our daughter Andrea and kids moved to the ranch; we built them a house on the hill above the big field across the creek. The kids (ages 7, 9, 10, and 14) love the animals, especially 7-year-old Danielle. She and Samantha (age 9) helped name several of the new calves this year and came up with some very interesting names. Dani named one little heifer Shyterra.

On earlier visits to the ranch, Dani had become acquainted with one of our older gentle crossbred cows named Maggie — who was very curious about this small child who liked to walk with me out among the cows and calves. Maggie got to where she would let Dani walk up to her with a big bouquet of green grass; the old cow would delicately pluck it from her small hand with her big rough tongue.

Dani loved all the new baby calves and was always eager to see them. She had never seen a calf born, however, and this year she was determined to watch Maggie calve. Dani made Andrea promise to bring her down here to the barnyard when Maggie started calving (even if it was the middle of the night) or drive to town to get her from school. Dani had clothes laid out by her bed, ready to dress in a hurry if it was nighttime.

As it turned out, Maggie started calving in the wee hours on Easter morning, so Andrea woke Dani up and brought her down here. We’d put Maggie in the barn because it was cold and windy that night, so Dani and I sat quietly in the next stall (with our warm coats on) to watch Maggie calve.

That old cow wasn’t at all nervous having people nearby (and Dani kept very still so as not to upset the cow). Maggie gave birth to a nice big bull calf. We then left the pair alone for a while, and Dani took a nap on our couch until daylight. Lynn and I helped the calf nurse after Maggie had licked him and he got to his feet.

One reason Maggie is so gentle is that we generally have to help her calves nurse the first time. She always has a big udder and her teats are a bit long and fat — not ideal for a beef cow — which makes it hard for a newborn calf to get them into his mouth. Typically, a cow like this would be culled, but she was always so friendly and gentle that we put up with this inconvenience of helping her newborn calves nurse for the first time.

Dani loved all the calves, and every time she came
out to the ranch she was always eager to see them.

It was actually quite humorous this year. Her calf was very smart as I was helping him and was quickly figuring out how to get the teat in his mouth by himself, but Maggie was having such severe after-pains (uterine cramps, as she started to expel the placenta) that she wanted to lie down before he finished nursing.

So when she lay down, we just continued his dinner; his mouth eagerly followed my fingers down to the udder, and I pulled up one of her big teats to where he could reach it — and he was able to nurse those two topmost teats with her lying down! I wish I’d had my camera for that spectacle.

A few hours later Dani woke up from her nap on our couch and came back out to the barn to see her special cow again, and Maggie placidly tolerated this small child sitting there in the barn stall petting her and the new baby. When Sam came down later that day, Dani proudly showed her the new calf, too. Later, when we put the pair out of the barn into one of the pens nearby, Dani spent several hours sitting in the pen.

Dani came back out to the barn to
see her favorite cow and the new calf.

When Sam came down to the barn later,
Dani showed her the new calf, too.

She’s made it her goal to make all the calves gentle this year. She likes to walk out among them now that they are all out at pasture, and she patiently waits for them to come up to her and sniff her hand. She knows all the cows by sight as well as tag number and knows which ones she can trust and which ones to stay away from because they are very protective mothers — though they are all becoming used to seeing her, and even the “mean” ones are more tolerant than they were earlier.

Dani spent part of the day with Maggie and her new calf
in the outdoor pen after they came out of the barn.

This group of calves is gentler than most. A few weeks ago when we branded and vaccinated them, we put them into the shed next to the calf chute, and while we were getting everything ready, Dani lounged around in the shed with the calves, pretending to be one of them. They are very at ease with her, and with people, and she helped us push each new batch of calves into the little holding pen by the calf table — and none of them tried to run past her or kick her. I can see that I have very good help for the future, in this avid young cowgirl!

While we were getting things ready for branding,
Dani lounged around in the shed with the calves.

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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