WILSALL — The cowboy steps from his clay bank mount, a syringe clutched between his teeth and a log book in his vest pocket. He makes his way to a day-old calf that’s too busy licking its mother’s ear tag to realizes it’s about to get one of its own and then some.
Kurt Mraz sweeps the young’un off its hooves so quickly that the calf’s quizzical expression hardly changes before it’s flat on its side, the cowboy’s shin resting on its neck.
Mraz’s hands probe for the best place to administer the vaccine. Then he lets the young Angus raise its head. The calf cranes its neck searching for its mother on the snow-crusted plain. Mraz buttons a bright orange tag to the calf’s right ear, then lets it rise, shakily.
It’s a startling welcome to the Lazy SR, and for that matter to the world. Mraz puts the animal’s vitals in his log book and moves on.
The calf bellers.
“We’ll have about 600 calves this spring,” Mraz said. “We’ll have about 250 in the next two weeks.”
Below the frigid blue slopes of the Crazy Mountains, the calves are coming fast this morning. There are three in the heifer pen still slick and glistening with amniotic fluid. The calves stagger like sailors in a squall, a little bewildered, a little sick, their umbilical cords quivering in a cold wind. The scene plays out in pastures across the state from late January until mid-April.
In Park County, where Wilsall is located, the two-legged population is roughly 16,000 and declining. There are roughly 31,000 cows and heifers ready to drop, said Tracy Mosley, Park County extension agent. Nearly all of those animals will have babies in the next few weeks.
On the Lazy SR, owned by Dirk Adams, the numbers are daunting. The 600 cattle are hastily becoming 1,200. One cowboy is on duty at all times to make sure everything goes right. The surrounding ranches are experiencing the same.
Mraz, who works the pastures in shifts with fellow hands Cody Wilsey and Cleve Swandal, is first to acknowledge that this calving season has been challenging.
The snow has been relentless. For only the second time in 20 years, the ranch has had to bring in road graders to clear snow from its pastures, which at 6,000 feet in elevation are still frozen January-hard in parts. In places where brown pastures seem to be breaking through, there is mostly only trampled straw pressed into dirty ice.
The cold has been merciless. In February, the Lazy SR’s first calves were born in temperatures lower than 20 below. At those temperatures, a newborn’s wet ears freeze off easily; so do tails and noses. A calf whose nose is frozen too badly can’t breathe and has to be euthanized.
The first few minutes of life spent on the cold hard ground can kill a calf or weaken it for the rest of its life.
It’s up to Mraz and the other hands to give the calves more than a fighting chance.
The warming shed has been heavily used this season, with as many as five or six newborns clustered beneath heating lamps.
In the critical moments after birth on a cold day, any warm place will do. Cowboys swap tales of warming calves in the cabs of their pickups or in the bunkhouse bathtub, anywhere to assure that the animal not only survives but also doesn’t struggle to gain weight for the rest of its life.
Lost pounds are lost profits.
Mraz has shared his pickup truck and his bathroom with more than one calf, though preferably the animals are born in the barn on the coldest days and warmed under lights. It also doesn’t hurt to separate heifers from the rest of the herd for their first birth.
The isolation helps the new mother bond with her calf. A heifer can bulge at the ribs like a sack full of boulders and still not understand once she’s dropped her calf that she’s now a mother.
On the Lazy SR, as on most ranches, the heifers give birth first. It gives ranchers more time to deal with complications and also gives the heifer more time to recuperate before breeding season. The next year, she’ll drop her calves later, in better weather.
“My feeling is, things have gone pretty well, but it’s been pretty challenging because of cold snaps,” Mosley said. “Now we’re going through the pretty messy time and that’s hard, too.”
Mud and bacteria go to work immediately on spring calves born outside. It’s up to the mother to lick the newborn clean, get it standing and give it some milk. But even with the weather and instinct working in its favor, a calf can still be destroyed by ulcers or scours, a diarrhea caused by milk gorging.
A few years ago, Ekalaka rancher David Wolff decided that calving in February just wasn’t worth it. The early start meant his animals were heavier when they went to market in the fall, but the risks were too great.
“A dead calf isn’t worth much,” Wolff said, whose calves were barely beginning to drop on March 18, a late start by many ranchers’ standards.
“I’m really glad we’re calving when we are this year,” Wolff said. “Last year, we had such a late spring I thought I’d give our heifers a couple more weeks.”
Wolff had five calves on the ground a week ago. The temperature was approaching 40 degrees and everyone was breathing easy. A cow should gain 2 to 3 pounds a day from the time it’s born to the time it goes to market in the fall, Wolff said. That’s an average. There are hot summer days when the animal might not gain any weight and fall days when a late rain greens up the grass and the grazing animal muscles up as a result. Ultimately, if the calf goes to market 48 pounds lighter, Wolff said he’ll take the loss and be happy the animal made it at all.
Mraz was feeling pretty good about March as the sun warmed his back last week, even with roughly 500 births to go and plenty of challenges remaining. There were bald eagles circling overhead looking for afterbirth to eat and magpies picking through the detritus. He’d seen a coyote the day before. Lots to worry about, but more to look forward to.