Calving season: The yearly make-or-break moment for ranchers in a changing industry (with photo gallery)

CLARK — It is the first journey for a mother and her days-old baby. It is not far, just across the field through a gate. Some catch on rather quickly, the “veterans” as rancher Doug Carlson calls them.

On a recent April morning, Carlson, on the ground with a flag, works with two ranch hands on horses to push cows to the opening and let them figure out the rest. Some cows get it.

“This is one of our best cows right here,” Carlson remarked as the cow easily figured out where it was supposed to go, continuously calling out to its calf for it to keep up.

Other cows struggle. Having just given birth to its second calf the day before, one cow had very little experience with the field and was harder to convince. Davey Baron, Carlson’s main ranch hand, calmly called out instructions to the pair — “Come on calvey, let’s go calvey” — as they pushed it toward the gate.

With the animal stalled against a barbed wire fence, Baron got off his horse to lead the cow to the gate, but the calf had other plans. Seeing an opening between strands of barbed wire just big enough, it was able to dip through.

But the grass clearly wasn’t greener as the calf stuck close to the fence and followed its mother back down the line to where the opening was. After a brief sniff of the new ground, the two were reunited in the new field.

“Well, that is one way to do it,” Baron remarked when they had finished.

Calving season may sometimes take second billing to the ski season in Routt County, but the period each spring when the cattle population nearly doubles may be just as crucial to the local economy. There are almost as many cattle in Routt County as there are people, and of the county’s roughly 230 beef cattle ranches, most of them run what is called a cow-calf operation.

These ranches have steady herds of cows that give birth to a calf each spring. Carlson, with Sand Mountain Cattle Co., raises the calves through the fall and sells them when they weigh about 500 pounds for about $1.75 a pound. The roughly 45 days where cows on a ranch are giving birth is one of the most crucial points of the season for cattle producers.

“We have one payday basically, and that is in the fall when we sell these calves. The more live calves we can sell, the better off we are,” Carlson said. “This is why we are out here every two to four hours. Even losing one calf makes a difference.”

Ranching looks different than it did a few decades ago. While most of the ranches in the county are still family run, younger generations are increasingly not coming back to the ranch to work. Most ranches in the county now hire additional help, and a lot of the longtime, multigenerational family ranches have been sold over the past 20 years.

“Some are for sale now, and agriculture as a result looks a little different than it used to,” said Todd Hagenbuch, agricultural agent and director of the Colorado State University Routt County Extension Office.

On average, it takes about 2 to 3 acres per cow-calf pair per month for grazing in Routt County, Hagenbuch said. That, of course, is in a “normal” year, which is something not seen as often. A 50% reduction in forage growth in dry years is becoming more common.

“You can extrapolate that and figure that in a drought year, it can take 150% to 200% more grazing land for grazing than it used to,” Hagenbuch said. “That’s a tough situation to deal with.”

Longtime rancher Doug Carlson looks over the herd at the Sand Mountain Cattle Co. in North Routt. (Photo by John F. Russell)

‘The business side’

Nestled in the Elk River Valley in North Routt near Clark, the Sand Mountain Cattle Co. had about 165 pregnant cows last fall.

The process starts the summer before, when Carlson puts his bulls in the field with the cows around the first of July for 45 days. When they pregnancy check cows in the fall, they generally get a pretty good idea of when the calf is going to be born, Carlson said. If a cow isn’t pregnant, they generally sell it off.

“It costs too much to run a cow up here, between feeding and labor and hay and stuff like that,” Carlson said. “If she doesn’t give you a calf, you can’t afford to keep her. That is the business side of this.”

Ranchers invest in their herds for years, and it is disappointing to learn a cow is open, meaning it won’t have a calf in the spring. Carlson generally adds to his herd by keeping a few calves and raising them for two years before they are old enough to give birth.

He keeps detailed data on his cows — how fast its calf grew, how much the calf weighed at birth and sale, the temperament of the cow and other factors, which all go into curating a herd that continuously produces healthy calves. Cows generally can give birth until they are about 12 years old, but Carlson has had cows calve older than that.

“You try to build up the quality of your herd every year,” Carlson said. “When you get to that level where you like your cow herd, any cow that is open, you go ‘dang.'”

At Carlson’s ranch, they keep the first-calf heifers close to the house. A heifer is a female that has not had any offspring. When they have a calf, they are then referred to as a cow.

They check on these newbies every two hours and try to set things up so they have their calves a little bit earlier than the rest of the herd. This gives the new mothers more time to recover from giving birth and get ready for the cycle to start again.

The rest of the herd is kept down the road a bit and checked on every four hours. Carlson will drive around the field in an all-terrain vehicle and observe each of the cows. When they get close to giving birth, the cows’ udders become more pronounced, Carlson said.

Calves are born about 80 pounds, and it is important that they dry off, and oftentimes, the cows will lick them clean. Calves stand up and walk around almost right away and making sure they start nursing is crucial. While cows are given supplements in the weeks leading up to birth to give the calves more immunity, the first milk from its mother is also full of antibodies that are important for the calf’s survival.

After about a day, Baron will tag the calves and give them a multi-mineral shot meant to further boost their immunity. This is when the cow and new calf make that first journey across the field.

Ranch manager Cody McHaffie helps a calf back to its mother after placing a tag in its ear. McHaffie then moved the animals to a different pasture at the Flying Diamond Ranch south of Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

Flying Diamond

Ranches across the county set up to calve at different times, and a lot of it has to do with the weather. Ranches in western Routt County near Hayden generally will calve earlier because they have less snow, where in North Routt, where snowfall is greater, ranchers wait until later in the spring.

This is one of the many dilemmas ranchers face. If they set their herd to calve earlier, there is more time for calves to grow, which means they’ll likely fetch a higher price in the fall. But if calving starts too early, the snow is too deep and ranchers lose calves.

“A 600-pound calf will bring more at the sale barn then a 450-pound calf, but a 450-pound calf will get you more than a dead calf,” Carlson said.

At the Flying Diamond Ranch off of Colorado Highway 131 between Steamboat Springs and Oak Creek, ranch manager Cody McHaffie starts his calving around the same time as Carlson, but there are a lot of differences between the operations

Rather than owning the ranch like Carlson, McHaffie is managing it for someone else. He also sends his cows to Yuma on the Eastern Plains during the winter and doesn’t keep any of the calves born each year. To add new cows to the herd, he buys them when they are old enough to have a calf simply because it is more cost effective.

Most of his herd of 232 cows are between 5 and 6 years old, so they require less frequent checking, McHaffie said. His land is different than Carlson’s as well, with more rolling hills and uneven terrain.

When the cows go out, McHaffie looks for those that may be off on their own or acting differently than they normally would. Each cow is assigned a number, which appears on a tag in their ear.

Even when he can’t see the number, McHaffie said he often recognizes which cow it is. Some are bigger than others, some have distinctive markings and some have been around long enough that he just knows them.

“She is 7 years old, and we have had her since she was 2, so I can somewhat recognize them,” McHaffie said, referring to cow No. 4119.

McHaffie and his 14-year-old daughter, Emma, who enjoys helping out on the ranch, own a few of the cows themselves. She isn’t sure if she wants to pursue ranching as a career just yet though.

“It might kind of be not like my full-time job — maybe have a ranch on the side,” Emma said. “I don’t know yet; I haven’t really decided.”

A calf makes tracks to catch up with its mother at the Flying Diamond Ranch south of Steamboat Springs. (Photo by John F. Russell)

A ways to go’

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts a census every five years with the most recent data being collected in 2017. Between that study and the one five years before in 2012, Routt County saw significant changes in ranching.

Over that span, total agricultural sales declined by about 30%, pasture land declined by about 25% and median size of a ranch declined by about 30%. The number of ranches has increased though, and there are now considerably more ranches located on land less than 50 acres.

The average age of a rancher has increased from 57 in 2007 to over 60 in 2017, but there are also 123 new operations that have just started up since 2007.

“Ranching looks different then it did a couple of decades ago already,” Hagenbuch said. “I wouldn’t say things drastically change overnight, but there is still a continual shift. Sometimes it accelerates, and sometimes it decelerates, but there will continue to be change.”

Carlson’s ranch hand Baron moved to Routt County after growing up in North Carolina. He got his start with the horticulture program at The Home Ranch in Clark, eventually becoming a wrangler, working with horses and leading guest rides.

“I had no idea I was going to get into ranching at all,” Baron said. “I rode my first horse up there.”

Wanting to learn more about cattle ranching, Baron started working for Carlson. Baron now has several cows of his own on the ranch as part of his compensation.

“I run some of my own here and hope to expand it a little bit,” Baron said. “I still got a lot to learn, so I got a ways to go.”

Now, Baron is committed to ranching as a career. He belongs to several local rancher groups and picks the brains of seasoned ranchers whenever he has the chance. He said the ranching community in Northwest Colorado is strong, and there are a number of younger guys like him trying to break into the business.

While at times he wishes he had grown up in a ranching family, there are also benefits to being an outsider, particularly in a changing industry.

“Coming in as first generation, I don’t have any biases,” Baron said. “I can be very experimental and go from there, rather than doing it just because that is the way we have always done it.”

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