Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Heather Smith Thomas: Notes from Sky Range Ranch — April Calving, Spring of 2013

Granddaughter Dani (age 8) with one of our April calves

After we sold most of our cows to our son and his family a few years ago, we let them use our range permit (summer pasture on BLM for 4 months), and we’ve kept our smaller herd here at home. Thus we no longer have to calve in January to have the cows bred in April before turnout on the range.

We’ve been calving in April for several years, and theoretically, it should be easier than calving in subzero weather, right? The April weather this year wasn’t severely cold, but it was so nasty — with snow and wind — that we were glad we have a barn.

Dani loves to make friends with all the calves.

In late March we put the cows in our small pasture and maternity pen near the house where we could start watching them more closely. Eight-year-old Dani (our youngest granddaughter) helped me make this year’s calving calendar showing the dates when each cow was due to calve. We had due dates on most of them, from their breeding dates, and estimates on the other cows’ due dates from the veterinarian’s preg-checking. We started “training” the 2-year-old heifers so they would be easy to put in the barn for calving if the weather was bad. We lured them into the hold pen with hay, then gently herded them to the pen in front of the barn, where the doors were open, with alfalfa hay inside. We put them into the barn, and even though a couple of them were reluctant to go in, they stayed in awhile after they found out there were “treats” to eat. The next day they all went into the barn on their own — to eat alfalfa.

Freddy, one of our oldest cows, started calving the afternoon of March 30. About the time she started serious labor, at 9:00 p.m., a cold wind was blowing, so we put her in the barn to calve. She had a nice black bull. Freddy’s udder has sagged a bit in old age. Her big bull calf was so tall that he couldn’t figure out how to bend his head down low enough to get on a teat, so Andrea and I quietly went into the barn stall and helped him nurse. I rubbed his hind end and kept him pointed in the right direction while Andrea slipped a teat in his mouth. Freddy always has a lot of colostrum, so Andrea milked a little of the extra into a small pitcher — in case we need it for an emergency. By the time we finished helping Freddy’s calf nurse, Rosalie had started calving, so we put her in the barn also, and she had a bull calf at 2:00 a.m.

Freddy and Thunder Bull enjoying a mother-son moment.

We had several more calves in the following days. Dani named the first ones Thunder Bull, Lightning Strike, Brownie Tip Tail, Merrinina, Bug Eyed Bear, and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. For the 3 weeks we were calving, Andrea came down from her house to watch the cows during the first part of each night, until I got up about 4:00 a.m. to type articles and continue the cow-checking. One night Lynn and I went to bed early, and I woke up at 9:30 and realized Andrea hadn’t come yet. I looked out the window to check the cows in the maternity pen with the spotlight and saw that one of the heifers (Buffalo Baby) had just calved — lying by the fence with a newborn calf behind her.

Lightning Strike and Thunder Bull were the first two
calves born and were named by Dani.

I quickly dressed and went out there. It must have been a fast and easy birth because Buffalo Baby hadn’t shown any signs of labor when we went to bed. She got up when I approached and seemed startled by this wee creature behind her.

The night was cold; we needed to put this heifer and baby in the barn, out of the wind, where they could bond without interference from the other cattle. I woke Lynn, and we pulled the calf to the barn in our calf sled. Buffalo Baby was confused and didn’t want to follow the sled, but her own mother (Buffalo Girl) came marching after us, sniffing her new grandchild, and I was able to persuade Buffalo Baby to follow her old mother. We made a quaint parade to the barn — Lynn pulling the calf sled, Buffalo Girl sniffing the sled, Buffalo Baby following her, and me following the confused young mother.

We put them all in the barn, with Buffalo Girl in the stall adjacent to the new mama and baby, to give her company and reassurance. Buffalo Baby started licking the calf and mooing, but when the calf got up, the young mama wasn’t sure what to do with this lively creature that kept circling round her trying to find the udder. The calf finally got cold and discouraged. So we heated up some of the colostrum we’d stolen from Freddy a few days earlier and fed the calf a bottle. This gave the calf energy and renewed enthusiasm. She resumed her pursuit of the udder and finally caught up with it — nursing happily while her mama lovingly licked her little hind end.

Buffalo Baby and her calf after it was a week old and
they were out in the field with the rest of the herd.

We had several more cows we had to put into the barn to calve and wondered if the weather would ever be nice enough for outdoor calving. One sunny morning I put MagniKate (a second-calf cow) into one of the calving pens when she went into labor, but by noon it started pouring rain, so I put her in the barn. It rained hard off and on the rest of the day.

A week later on Thursday evening we had three calves. Maggie (Dani’s favorite old cow) was in early labor, so we put her in the barn to keep Maggeruite (her granddaughter who was also calving) company. Dani and I kept an eye on the heifer, watching quietly through the back door of the barn where she couldn’t see us. The calf’s feet were showing (and very large), and she was taking too long, so I sent Dani to the house to get Lynn and the OB chains. Lynn and I pulled the calf — a big bull.

By then it was getting dark, but we could see that our last heifer (Mary Mary Conskentrary—named by Dani 2 years ago when she couldn’t pronounce “Quite Contrary”) was also calving. By the time we put her in the barn, Maggie had calved. Dani was very disappointed because the old cow did it so quickly that Dani didn’t get to watch the birth like she did last year. We let Dani go into the stall and see the new calf and pet it, then we had to get out of the barn and leave Mary Mary (one of our most flighty heifers) in peace to have her baby.

When we peeked in next, Mary Mary was getting more serious about labor, and Maggeruite’s calf had tried to nurse his mama and was giving up. Maggie’s big blundering boy was thinking about nursing, so Andrea and I sneaked into her stall and milked some extra from Maggie while her calf was nursing. Then we fed Maggeruite’s calf some of his great-grandma’s colostrum — which gave him enough energy to keep trying to nurse his own mama. By then Mary Mary had calved — a little heifer calf — and was tentatively mothering it. We ended up giving that calf a little “jump start” with some of Maggie’s colostrum, too. Both calves eventually caught up with their mamas.

On the weekend Sammy and Dani helped us do chores and feed the cows. They enjoyed petting Maggie’s calf and searched around to find some green grass tall enough to pick handfuls of to feed Maggie. That old cow loves licking grass out of their hands.

Dani feeding Maggie while Sam picks more grass

Maggie — Dani’s favorite cow — and
her calf at 2 weeks of age

We had a severe blizzard the night of April 21 when our last two cows calved. April is supposed to be spring, but this year the weather was just fickle enough that we put every cow into the barn to calve!

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 HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook.

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