Newborn calves that get on their feet and demand their first meal soon after birth have a better chance of survival.

Photo by Tom Ross

Newborn calves that get on their feet and demand their first meal soon after birth have a better chance of survival.

Tom Ross: April - it's calf-alicious


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Even as the ski area raced to add a few inches of snow to its record total this week and skiers and riders were preparing to observe the celebration called Springalicious, Routt County ranchers were working late to keep their newborns alive.

Calving season is under way and ranchers are adding extra bales of hay to their feeding rounds. The hope is that there will be some hay left over to provide dry beds on the snow for the new arrivals.

If you think it has been a little tough weathering this snowy winter, imagine how hardy the calves have to be in order to survive being born in this climate.

Overnight lows ranged from zero to 10 degrees this week. But rancher Jim Stanko says the calves make it through their first couple days just fine as long as they get dried off and get that first meal of mother's milk soon after they emerge from the womb.

I hitched a ride on Stanko's tractor March 28 and made some photographs while he checked on the status of 85 pregnant cows - make that 78 pregnant cows. Calf No. 7 had been born to cow No. 45 barely an hour earlier.

There was ample evidence that the birth was recent. The placenta was still attached to the protective mother. I was surprised at how vigorous the calf was at such a tender age. Stanko stepped forward to clip a yellow tag with the numeral 7 on it in his ear and the little bull fought the grip of the rancher's thighs on either side of his ribs.

The task accomplished, the rancher stepped back and pulled a little red book out of his pocket to make a record of the birth and related details.

"This is my brain," he said.

The book contains information about each animal and its progress. Stanko would be lost without it.

He expects the birth of more calves to continue at the rate of two or three a day this month. And he has a strategy for increasing the odds that the newborns will survive being born into a harsh environment. It might seem counterintuitive if, like me, you know diddly about the ranching business.

Stanko breeds his cows to bulls that have a history of producing small calves. Why is that?

Smaller calves mean an easier birth process for both mother and calf.

"If you have an easier birth, it's more likely it'll get right up and start sucking" on its mother's teat, Stanko said.

That first meal is a big key to survival. But one of the biggest contributors to calf mortality still remains. The babies can tolerate a cold, dry night. But a cold rain or sleet storm can reduce their body temperatures to the point that they become hypothermic.

Ranchers also keep an eye on the calves for signs of scours (profound digestive distress), which can be medicated.

Ranchers have a lot riding on the survival of the calves that are being born in the snow this spring. They hope for a high percentage of bull calves because they produce more and better meat as steers. The price right now for steers ready to be shipped to the feedlot is holding steady at about $1.12 a pound, Stanko said.

The Stanko Ranch, 3.5 miles west of Steamboat, saw two calves born March 28. If both make it to market this fall at about 550 pounds, they'll more than cover the rancher's $750 diesel fuel bill for March.

That would be a good thing. In skier terms, it would be calf-alicious.


upstream 9 years ago

Tom- thanks for making sure the real heart and soul of our valley- the ranchers- get a little mention amongst all the hooha with intrawest and the gapers... These folks (some less than 6 years old, some more than 80) are out night and day this time of year working together to make sure all of their cows and calves survive. Enough with the yap about tourist numbers and ski time square and closing the lifts early- It would sure be nice to hear about our very own hardworking agricultural heroes more often and less about the make believe Disneyland world of the ski mountain. Best of luck to all who may have to pull a calf in the blinding snow tonight- you are in my prayers. Thank you for the wonderful work you do.


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