Calving off to cold start
Deep snow wreaking havoc on critical time of year for ranchers
April 8, 2006
Dean Look, a third generation rancher, found a dead newborn calf on his ranch in North Routt County on Thursday morning.
Steamboat Springs’ near record-breaking snowfall has been great for the ski season, but it has created challenges for ranchers during spring calving season.
Dangerous water holes are created when large amounts of snow melt. If a calf is dropped into the water upon birth, it can freeze if the rancher is not there to pull it out.
Look had to rescue one earlier this season from a water hole. He pulled him up to a dry spot and put hay around him. After a couple of hours, the sun came up, and the calf began nursing.
One incident can cause problems for future calves being born. “If one cow goes to a certain area, two-thirds of the cows will go to the same spot,” Look said.
In more severe cases, Look will bring the calf into the barn and wrap it in an electric blanket before reintroducing it to its mother.
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Look lost another calf earlier this season to scours, a disorder in which the intestines fail to absorb fluid and which sometimes causes fatal diarrhea. Look was unsure about the cause of death in the calf he found Thursday morning. “I think a cow lay on it,” Look said.
Look has 110 to 120 cows, and 40 calves have been born. Look will sell all of the cows except for 12 to 15 of them that he will keep as replacement heifers for breeding. Heifers are young cows that have not yet had calves.
The calving season in North Routt County will last six weeks to two months and occurs during mud season.
“It’s not mud season, it’s manure season,” Look said.
Look starts breeding his cows when they are 2 years old. “A bunch of us greedy old ranchers try to get as many (calves) as we can,” he said.
Look’s cows give birth to two or three sets of twins each season, but they don’t always survive.
“Some cows can save both, but sometimes they don’t save either,” Look said. “Cows can’t count.”
Cows reproduce until they are 12 to 15 years old.
Look used to artificially inseminate all of his cows, but that became too much work. “Now I let the bulls do it,” Look said.
There are many factors that can endanger a calf upon birth, and protective mothers can pose risks for ranchers.
“Everyone who raises cattle has been knocked down a few times,” Look said.
Mike Martindale, Bar A Ranch rancher in Toponas, said the ranch has dodged all the big storms this spring.
“We don’t get as much snow as Steamboat, but we get the wind,” said Wayne Shoemaker, Bar A Ranch manager.
The calving season in Toponas starts later than the ranches in North Routt because Toponas is at a higher altitude, and the harsh winter weather lasts longer. “The $64 question is whether the weather is going to cooperate,” Shoemaker said. “Usually, this time of year, it does not.”
“We live in ‘Wyberia,'” Martindale added. “It’s a combination of Wyoming and Siberia.”
Martindale hopes to get calves from 90 percent to 95 percent of the ranch’s 700 cows. “It would be a pretty good year if we lost only 10 percent (of the calves),” he said.
The ranch has not lost any calves this season to bad weather. The ranch workers take many precautions to ensure healthy calves. They vaccinate their calves for entertoxemia, also known as overeating disorder, and they try to keep the mother’s nutrient level as high as possible by feeding her the best hay available during and after pregnancy.
The major risks that Shoemaker and Martindale worry about are scours, pneumonia, other calf disorders and E. coli — which is common in the wet, sloppy environment of ranches in the spring. They also worry about breach births, Martindale said.
Cows can get confused if they haven’t had enough time to bond with their calves.
They will clean off other cows’ calves instead of their own.
“We have to watch to keep them mothered up to their own calves,” Shoemaker said.
In the 18 years that Shoemaker has been ranching, this has been one of the toughest winters. But he has been told that “this winter was the winters in the old days,” Shoemaker said. “We’re just getting caught up to the average.”