Jim and Jo Stanko bucket feed calves that didn’t bond with their mothers Monday at their ranch on Routt County Road 33. Within two months or so, the calves will be shifted from formula to a granular feed called Startena. However, first they must be taught to chew and swallow. The cold, wet spring weather has made calving season tough on Routt County cattle ranchers.

Photo by Tom Ross

Jim and Jo Stanko bucket feed calves that didn’t bond with their mothers Monday at their ranch on Routt County Road 33. Within two months or so, the calves will be shifted from formula to a granular feed called Startena. However, first they must be taught to chew and swallow. The cold, wet spring weather has made calving season tough on Routt County cattle ranchers.

Weather deals hardship to Routt County ranchers, newborn calves

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Lower Elk River Valley rancher Mary Kay Monger checks Monday on a cow about to give birth to her first calf later this month. Monger and her husband, Larry, are looking after about 170 mother cows during a challenging spring calving season.

— Spring calving season is the time of year ranchers in the Yampa Valley most look forward to. It’s the season of new life, when 2-week-old calves romp in the newly greening hay meadows.

“This is the best time of year for us. It’s the highlight,” rancher Mary Kay Monger said. “This is the payoff for all of our work. And not just the dollars. This is the gift.”

However, spring 2011 has been one of protracted winter, and the cold, wet storms that are expected to dominate the weather forecast for much of this week are taking a toll on calves. Some are born in the snow, or worse, in recently melted snow. The combination of cold moisture and wind can sap the newborns of their strength. And the few that don’t get on their feet within the first five or 10 minutes to demand their mother’s milk can be in peril.

“The sooner they get up and take their first drink, it’s better for them,” Monger said.

Monger and her husband, Larry, had a setback Monday morning at their ranch on Routt County Road 44 along the lower Elk River when a bull calf didn’t survive a difficult birth. It was discovered partially born at about 6:30 a.m. and Larry Monger got the mother cow on her feet so she could help push the calf out while he pulled it with a rope.

The weakened calf was taken to the family kitchen, where it was rolled in a blanket on the floor and set in front of a forced-air heater. It was fed colostrum — a mother’s milk substitute — through a tube inserted into its stomach, but at 10:30 a.m., its body went limp and there was nothing more to be done.

Jim and Jo Stanko, who ranch close to Steamboat on Twentymile Road (Routt County Road 33) have suffered worse losses already this spring. Among their herd of 77 pregnant cows, six calves have died.

“This is really tough,” Jim Stanko said. “We’re at that 10 percent loss, and that isn’t good. We’re looking at as much as $7,000 down the tube.”

Jo Stanko said the calf mortality rate on their ranch hasn’t been this high in many years.

“We’ve averaged 97 to 98 percent (survival) for the last 15 years,” she said.

On a brighter note, the Stankos spent part of the early afternoon Monday feeding three healthy calves in their barn. The calves, for a variety of reasons, had not formed a bond with their mothers. Now, they were eagerly jostling to get at bright blue buckets affixed with rubber teats containing calf formula. Their eager antics couldn’t help but induce laughter in a trying calving season.

The difficulty this spring is partly due to the valley snowpack that has lingered beyond the middle of April and led to many calves being born on cold, muddy hay fields, or even in frigid water.

Area goat and sheep ranchers also have reported challenges with mortality rates of newborns this spring.

“This little calf I pulled in the middle of the night in a snowstorm. I didn’t even give his mother a chance (to rear her baby), I just brought him in the barn,” Jim Stanko said as the calf suckled vigorously from the bucket in his hand.

A healthy red calf that also was being fed in the barn Monday almost became a casualty.

“This calf’s mother had him in the water” where the melted snow had yet to drain off the hay meadow, Jo said. “Jim was away and I couldn’t pick it up, so I rolled it into the bucket of a front-end loader and brought it to the barn. I called some neighbors, and we took turns all night drying him with a hair dryer.”

The next day, the calf was reintroduced to its mother, but she began leading him back into the flooded portion of the meadow, so Jo took the newborn back to the barn.

The Mongers have about 170 mother cows continuing to give birth this month, and they have lost three calves, Mary Kay said. A coyote took one of them.

Their calving meadow is filled with placid mother Angus cows and calves that would be trotting in the spring sun if the dreary clouds weren’t putting a damper on things. With the price of beef up and with half of their newborns destined to become steers, there was reason for optimism. Each steer could sell this fall for between $700 and $800 if prices stay up, Monger said.

“Last week when we had a sunny day, the calves were all up, running and bucking,” she said.

The mother cow that lost her calf Monday morning was back on her feet late in the afternoon, and the gradual march toward milder weather continued.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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