The heifer in the quiet back corner of Turk Stovall's barn had been struggling for more than an hour to drop her first calf, and the cowboys watching from a distance were growing nervous.
That's when Cy Ricker concluded the first-time mother could do no more. Her bulging rib cage heaved as the cowboy led her into a calving chute where, after securing her head in the head gate, Ricker donned arm-length latex gloves and tenderly threaded the chains of a calf puller just above the unborn creature's legs. He drew the calf’s legs to daylight one quarter inch at a time until the entire animal emerged like a 40-pound wet stone pulled from the depths of a muddy field.
"First-calf heifers sometimes need help," Stovall said, as his ranch hand cleared the newborn's nostrils and got it breathing right. "We'll get the calf to milk now. As the calf milks, the mother releases hormones that help remove the placenta."
The cowboys scoop the calf from the concrete floor and place it at the head gate, where the mother begins licking it clean.
This is a birth that won't be forgotten. Parts of the story will stay with the animal all the way to the refrigerator case as consumers have become increasingly concerned about where their food comes from and how it's raised.
Foreign buyers of U.S. beef have for a decade demanded that the age of the beef be sourced to at least its birth month and its paper trail be tied back to the ranch where it was born.
“It’s been a wake-up call for production agriculture,” Stovall said, reaching for a sheet of maternity-ward-style vital statistics, including details about exactly what assistance cowhands offered.
“We need all our customers to be happy no matter where they’re from and that changes our thought process about what we need to know," he said.
Demands for such documentation stem from the 2003 discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in a Washington State dairy cow. It takes a high-protein diet to keep to a milk cow producing milk and some dairy farmers were feeding animal parts, including brain and spinal cord matter, to dairy cattle to boost the protein in the milk cows' diets. The spread of the central nervous system disorder in North America was linked to the brain and spinal cord matter in dairy cattle feed in Canada, which is where the Washington bovine originated.
The relationship between BSE and a human variant, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, sparked global fear among foreign buyers of U.S. beef. Three of America's top four foreign buyers responded to the Dec. 23, 2003, dairy cow discovery by shopping for beef elsewhere, which meant big losses for America's $3.9 billion in beef exports.
Ranchers like Stovall have been laying down a paper trail for their cattle ever since. BSE doesn't materialize in young cattle. So, animal age has become important to foreign buyers, some of whom have refused for a decade to buy American cattle older than 20 months. Equally important is where the cattle come from. Each animal has to be traced back to where it was born. Its bloodline, as well as its ranch are potential targets for recall if disease is found.
A decade after the 2003 incident, American beef producers have trade winds at their back again. Japan, once America's biggest beef customers, softened its age restrictions on U.S. beef at the beginning of February. World Organization of Animal Health scientists announced Feb. 20 that America deserved a top safety rating for BSE risk. The United States has also reached the 1.1 million metric ton mark for beef exports, which was the high mark for sales before 2003.
“The biggest thing is people have become more aware that they’re not just raising cattle, but are part of the food production system in the U.S.” said Bob Hanson, Montana Farm Bureau Federation president who raises cattle in Meagher County.
“I’ve had several people tell me that prior to 2003 they were in the cow-calf business. They didn’t’ see that other stuff about food security involving them. They just raised a calf and when it got in the truck the problem was someone else’s.”
BSE wasn’t the only thing driving the paper trial for Montana ranchers. The threat of brucellosis contracted from wildlife in counties neighboring Yellowstone National Park ratcheted up record keeping, as well.
Nearly all Montana calves are shipped out of state to be fattened and slaughtered. The Greater Yellowstone Region is the last known source of brucellosis in the nation. The disease causes cows to abort their young and is associated with undulant fever in humans. States receiving Yellowstone-area cattle balked at accepting the animals without vaccinations and clean bills of health.
Only a handful of Montana ranches have had cattle with brucellosis and no one has had a case of BSE, but meticulous records have become a part of life, a part that takes more than a little nerve to perform. A positive confirmation for either condition could result in a rancher’s entire herd being destroyed.
In March, the federal government will begin requiring veterinary inspection records, brand certificates, or other documentation for cattle moving across state lines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is rolling out the requirement as way of managing future public health concerns.
Most Montana ranchers will turn to the oldest animal record-keeping system in the West, the hot iron brand. The federal government originally objected to the brand as a trace-back tool, arguing that not all states use brands. But cowboys from Western states prevailed, wrestling the permission to use the brand provided the state receiving the cattle honored the system.
Nothing could be more reliable than the brand, Hanson said. Ear tags fall out. Brands stay with the animal for life. When a rancher takes out a loan at the bank, the banker puts a lien on the rancher’s brand that shows up at auction when the animal is sold. The cowboy and the bank split the sales check.
There’s no shortage of brands or ear tags at Stovall's place. There’s a green ear tag with the signature of the identifying tattoo of the calf’s father. Heifer calves take the tag in the left ear. Bulls take the tag in the right. There’s a tag for brucellosis vaccination and one with the mother’s information.
At first glance, a tagged calf looks more like a double discounted item at a dollar store. Each newborn is tagged up and the ritual on this ranch is performed more than a thousand times each spring.
Stovall reads the records like the book of Genesis. He knows all the begets, has sorted and resorted his stock based on their age and performance. The mothers and calves are sent to pasture in pairs as quickly as the rancher can get them out the door.
On a hill between the ranch feedlot and the birthing barn, a lone cowboy lays down a meandering line of pale green alfalfa from a round bale, to which a half-dozen new moms with calves in tow gravitate. This prairie spine of bunch grass and sage is a proving ground of sorts, where moms bonding with calves can be viewed from a distance.
This is the part of the story the records do not tell, though it’s a part to which Stovall is partial.
Food is a powerful magnet for any bovine, but for a young mom burning significant calories to produce milk, the drive to eat is particularly strong.
What Stovall wants to see on this hillside is maternal instinct prevailing over insatiable appetite. Calves take a back seat to supper as mothers gorge themselves on hay. But, when danger approaches, that maternal override should kick in coyote quick, quicker actually.
The coyotes on Stovall Ranch are larger and bolder this year than anyone can recall. Not long ago, they fed on starved horses that roamed wild across these hills after being turned loose by an owner who didn't feed them.
Ranch hands found nine of the predators feasting on a cow recently, and calf deaths to coyotes are up at Stovall’s.
"They're bold," said Juanita Stovall, Turk’s mom. "There was one running beside the truck when we were putting out hay."
Turk Stovall eyes the new cow-calf pairs as he crosses the spine in his pickup truck. There's about 90 minutes of daylight left and a cold, February breeze is stealing the warmth from the afternoon.
High above the feed line, a new black Angus mother has found a windbreak and bedded down with her first calf, which leans into her warm body.
The tags that will identify his origins for life are clearly visible, but for now it's obvious where he comes from.
"That's a good mom, right there, protecting her calf," Stovall said, nodding his head in direction of the animals. "That's what we're looking for."