One of the rewards of working with livestock is experiencing new life. Of course, the merit of that reward is not uppermost on my mind when the mother cow has me trapped beneath my pickup because she was not remotely amused by my efforts to capture her calf and put an identifying tag in its ear.
My cows are calving now. When we let the bulls in with the herd last spring, it was with the obviously misguided hope that February would be characterized by nice weather with snow confined to the mountains, where it belongs. When I had dairy cows, we calved year round to maintain a steady supply of newly fresh cows and hence, a consistent stream of milk. With the beef herd we try to calve in a relatively tight cluster. I start calving in the middle of February, assuming the bulls have behaved themselves, so little calves running about are a harbinger of spring for me.
When it comes time to calve, the beef cows are all business. They lie down and, zoom, out comes a calf. The cow leaps to her feet and starts licking the calf to clean it, meanwhile scanning the area looking for a farmer who might be dumb enough to venture into the scene.
Dairy cows, such as the Holsteins I had, make a huge production of calving. They stand rocking back and forth, feeling sorry for themselves, for a half hour or so. Then they lie down and get back up about forty times as if hoping the whole thing will go away. Next, they start feeble pushes, often accompanied with loud soul-wrenching bellows like their task is so replete with grief and pain that it is beyond earthly measure. Eventually they push out the front legs and the nose. That done, they sometimes stop, apparently hoping it is over. At last they finish the job; then often lie there as if they have no plans to ever move again. During all of this, it is usually possible to walk right up to the cow and offer advice, or if tired of waiting, grab the calf’s legs and pull it out.
One day, soon after I started my beef herd I noticed a cow beginning to calve. Since it didn’t appear much was happening I popped into the house for a sandwich. I anticipated that when I came out about 15 minutes later, the calf’s front feet might be showing. To my surprise, the calf was already getting its first meal.
Even when the weather is anything but springlike, the newborn calves give me a sense of hope. My optimistic outlook is under a bit of pressure when checking to see if any cows are calving in the howling wind and snow. Or when I’m trying to warm up a calf that the cow decided would be better off being born in the snow bank rather than the straw pile 20 feet away. The calves, once dried off and after a warm meal, are full of energy and remind me that things are bound to change.
Not many people raise cattle anymore, but I hope that everyone has some sort of sign to which they can point indicating that winter will give way to spring and that new life continues to appear in our world. My wife saw two robins the other day, which perked her up considerably. That harbinger is a lot less work, and much safer, than wrestling with large animals that can seriously kill you. Hang in there, don’t despair, spring is on its way.
Joe Brenneman is a rancher, farmer and former Flathead County commissioner.