SHERIDAN — Along with the return of migrating songbirds, one of the signs of springtime in Wyoming is the sight of calves romping through the greening prairie.
Calving season is now in full swing in much of Sheridan County. Several thousand calves started showing up in area pastures as early as February and will continue for the next several weeks.
Randy Stagemeyer has been the ranch manager at Amsden Creek Ranch for five years, though he spent many years prior to that working with other area ranches. The ranch primarily raises red Angus cows and is considered a small-scale operation with 120 heifers and cows.
As their expected calving dates get closer, Stagemeyer moves the heifers and cows from a larger pasture to a five-acre enclosure near his house, so he can check on them throughout the day.
"I just ride on them early in the morning and again right before dark," he said. "If it is a raging storm, blizzarding and stuff, some nights I'll ride all night. I'll go out every two hours and ride through them."
Stagemeyer said as cows get close to birthing, they become agitated and nervous, searching for a secluded place to give birth.
"When they get ready to calve they'll start walking and walking, looking for a place and wringing their tail," he said. "When they find a good place that is where they will do it."
Though most births are free of complications, there are a variety of things that can go wrong. Therefore, ranchers will often spend hours every day and even every night, riding through or observing their heifers or cows, watching for signs of distress.
"They can have problems," Stagemeyer said. "If you see one that is calving and the pads of the feet are up, it is a backward calf and you have to go in and pull it. I bring them in the (calving) shed and lay them down and pull the calf. If they are coming frontward and have a leg back, you'll see that because they'll get the shoulder pushed out. If there aren't two feet out, you gotta get them in (mother cow) and give them a spinal and push the calf back down, find the leg that is under it and straighten it back out. There are all kinds of things that can happen."
However, most of the time, the birthing process proceeds without trouble. Generally a cow will be in labor for up to a couple hours and if it drags on too much longer than that, it can be a sign that there are complications.
Some problems can be quite severe, including prolapse, torsion of the uterus and improper positioning of the calf in the birth canal. Most ranchers are prepared for such emergencies, though sometimes a veterinarian will need to be involved for a Caesarean section or other procedure.
One major complicating factor during calving season is the unpredictable Wyoming spring weather. Gestation time for cows is about the same as humans, approximately nine months, and many ranchers consider several factors when putting their bulls in with their cows the previous year and deciding when they want their calves to start hitting the ground in the spring.
For Stagemeyer, his main concern is the weather and he usually plans for calves to begin coming in March. This year, his first calves came from his heifers in early March and his older cows will begin calving in a few days. Though a late snowstorm can hit anytime, by planning calving for later in the spring, he hopes to avoid most of the cold, wet weather that can kill calves.
"Weather plays everything with me," he said. "I would rather calve today (a warm spring day) than middle of a snowstorm. Calves don't do well in the cold. They don't grow well when it is cold, they just stand around."
Stagemeyer said he has lost one calf this spring due to the weather. Losing a calf means a financial loss of $800 or more, so efforts are made to ensure the survival of every calf.
"I lost one heifer calf this year but that was just a freak deal," he said, noting that with the relatively small herd of 120, he is able to give extra care and attention to each calf. "It was because of the cold and the mud. It was a bad deal. It was one of those days when the wind was blowing, it was snowing and it was muddy. I kept him alive for a couple days. When you get them warm you'll think they're really gonna take off but they start slowly sinking the other way."
To help combat the cold wet weather, Stagemeyer has a calving shed that cows or heifers can be moved to in case of particularly bad weather. He also has a small area of the shed where he can place a bed of straw, which keeps the calves dry and out of the wind. In serious cases of hypothermia, he has a calf warmer where newborn calves can be placed for a few hours. The warmer circulates warm dry air around the calf within the domed enclosure.
More often than not, calves are up and walking a short time after birth and begin nursing and following mom around. At around six weeks of age or older, they will be gathered from the pasture for the branding. During the branding process, the calves will be branded, male calves will be castrated and all will receive vaccinations before being pastured for the summer.