Community Agriculture Alliance: It’s calving season in Routt County
April 12, 2018
If you know a rancher, or if you've been out for a drive around the Yampa Valley lately, then you probably realize that it is calving season. Most mountain cow/calf operations manage their breeding season to ensure that calves are born during March and April or April and May. Watching baby calves run and play in the meadows is one sure sign that spring is here.
Calving season is an important time around the ranch. In addition to being one of the most economically-significant seasons — calving trouble, or dystocia, is the second leading cause of economic loss in ranching — it is the most labor-intensive time for many ranch families and hands.
For about 60 days during this time, ranchers stay up late, get up early, bring cows and especially heifers — a female that has not yet calved — in for extra attention and care. We generally spend every waking hour, including some that aren't normally waking, watching our pregnant bovines like a hawk.
Even though most cows and heifers calve by themselves without problem, ranchers give them extra attention in anticipation of those that may have trouble. Statistically, about 15 percent of heifers and 2 percent of cows need assistance during birth.
We watch them closely for signs of labor. The early stage may last as long as 24 hours and culminates in the expulsion of the amniotic sac or water bag. That starts the second stage of hard labor, which for heifers may last three hours, and for cows about half that. We will generally give a heifer about an hour after seeing her water break, while in cows, we tend to wait more like 30 to 45 minutes before judging whether to intervene.
Calving problems arise due to the relative size of the calf or because of the orientation of the calf in the womb. Typically, a calf travels down the birth canal head first with its front legs under its chin. When the calf is too large, sideways, backwards or upside down, that's when the mother will need some help.
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In our outfit, we have a dedicated barn for calving including a special area for helping with a birth. But sometimes timing, excitement and other factors interfere, and many assisted births have occurred out in the meadow or in a snowbank.
Although the birth process can be stressful, once a calf is up and nursing, it is well on its way in life. Studies show that calves that drink adequate colostrum, or first mother's milk, during their first 24 hours have a much better chance of remaining healthy throughout their life. And that's why we devote so much time and attention to getting them off to a good start.
Calving is a labor of love, and the season is a time of hard work, intense satisfaction and, once in awhile, frustrating heartbreak. But the renewal of life that calving brings to the ranch symbolizes hope for the year ahead.
Jeff Myers of Coyote Creek Ranch, for the Routt County Cattlemen.