By the time you’ve lived most of your life as a rancher you get to thinkin’ you could write a book about things you’ve experienced. The talented Texan Elmer Kelton wrote a blockbuster about THE TIME IT NEVER RAINED . . . and a feller named Green wrote a whole string of classics about horses, horse doctorin’ and horse tradin.’
Calving time is another book-length subject. My personal plethora of memories an’ stories (gathered across well-over half a century) bridge the extremes. Growin’ up on a Wyoming ranch I came to understand that calving season is absolutely the most wonderful – and awful – time of the whole year.
My earliest memories are of those dazzling white faces that could’ve been used for a Clorox commercial, collared by deep rich red and fronted by a bright pink wet nose. They stood about eye to eye with me, and that red hair was soft to the touch. Sometimes it was all in waves . . . after their momma’s had been lickin’ them.
Havin’ to feed one milk out of a glass pop bottle with a long black rubber nipple was a challenge. I soon came to dread it when a mouth felt cold and they’d throw their heads back and let milk run out both sides, ‘cause I’d learned that one was prob’ly gon’na die. The pain of findin’ them cold and stiff at the next feeding time stayed with me. Somehow, though, the others that got better and stronger and ran to me, waggin’ their white-tipped tails while they drained their bottles dry, kind’a seemed to make up for it.
Ranching is a great life for a kid, but it’s not long ‘till that life suddenly gets stuck in fast-forward. Before you blink twice your ranching dreams meet reality head-on. That’s when your tasks morph from exciting, highly anticipated moments into exacting, demanding, exhausting days and weeks of backbreaking labor.
Calving ceases to be about cute faces and soft hair and fun things like feeding bottles and ropin’ in the branding pen. It suddenly tackles you like a wild beast, shaking and dragging you like a rag doll, against your will, through endless days and nights. Wet and cold and sleepless, your back kills you and your feet feel like they’ll fall off if you take one more step, yet the beast nips and growls, driving you ever onward through increasing fatiguing misery.
When the weatherman’s forecast of a wet spring storm came a day late you’d find yourself horseback, frozen to the point of pain, fighting the icy needles of wind-whipped snow while trying to force the heavy’s a couple miles into shelter. You’d vividly recall the more accurate storm alerts muttered the last couple days by the arthritic elderly, whose pain-ridden joints didn’t miss a thing.
Trying to divert your mind from your own pain, you’d vow to never, ever again get in too much of a hurry to put on at least one more layer of really warm clothes, and two more pair of dry gloves in your pockets. You’d also thank the Lord for being on your gentlest horse ‘cause the Navy Surplus bibs with the layer of plastic between the tough outer-layer and wool inner layer are cracklin’ like a pan full of popcorn and a green horse would surely buck you off . . . but by golly, it is the warmest thing you’ve had on.
Back at the corrals, knee deep in muck that grabs your rubber boots and hangs on, you’re still somehow thankful for the foot or so of white stuff that’s on top, ‘cause at least if you fall down your face won’t be in the black mud. Which would be the least of your worries, since you’re prayin’ that heifer you’re trying to pen is not on the fight….
But she is. Your only hope of getting her inside the barn is to become a human decoy . . . convince her she’ll have ya’ for lunch once she gets you cornered in there. Ooops – how was it you planned to outfox her, make your exit, and slam that door before she escaped?
It feels like eons have passed as you’re trying to get the rope off her before she gets up to lick the calf you and she somehow finally brought into this cold hostile world. And you hope and pray the hour you spent with her wasn’t the final one for some other unfortunate wet baby that might’ve come quickly since you made your last round through the heavy pen…
At such times, the things your dad always says replay in your head. “A man should never start calvin’ before the 15th of April in this country! Oh, he’ll get by with it sometimes, but then a year will come that’ll collect the toll . . . he might lose ‘em all.”
And when the scours show up after days and nights of punishing weather you look at each other and wonder if this is going to be that year.
The temperatures keep fallin . . . any calf you don’t find an’ get into a warm place within fifteen minutes of birth has lost ears and a tail. What kind’a warm place will accommodate 20, maybe even 30 newborn calves?
The cement block shop/garage that sits 4’ or 5’ deep in the bank along the backside is equipped with an old woodburning stove. So, you shovel the doors open, move the vehicles out in the snowbanks, drag in a bunch of wood and fire it up, figurin’ the 20’x 40’ space, even with shop bench and equipment claimin’ their share, ought to hold the crowd. The big lot where the heavy’s are penned is above this building so if you’re lucky to grab a freezing newborn by a hind leg you can drag him downhill most of the way, and mama will hopefully follow into the adjacent pen.
Paper cake sacks quickly split down one side soon cover every inch of cement floor . . . and shiverin’ wet calves soon cover all the space near the stove. Yellowish-green stinking slime soon covers the papers, and finally there’s somethin’ to be really thankful for in this mess – you can roll ‘em up, dirty part inside and stuff ‘em right into that roaring blaze before spreading more clean sacks!
You know each calf brought in here will be exposed to the horrible scours bug . . . left outside they’ll die for sure . . . so there’s no alternative. That particular calving storm and sickness lasted somethin’ over five days; thankfully a culture taken to the vet (a 35-mile round trip) yielded medication that was partially effective in dryin’ up the scours, so not too many died from that.
During about four of those days and nights we never even took our coats and coveralls off. Whenever things slowed up enough to make it to the house we shucked our drippin’ packs on a cake sack just inside the door and stretched out right there on the tile floor to fall asleep instantly, makin’ the most of the short 30 minutes before an alarm would go off and one of us had to head out to check the heavy’s again.
Once the snow quit, temperatures moderated, wind finally laid, and there was some sun, the shop residents rejoined their mamas. The sturdiest got moved to higher ground where hay had been fed, making a drier place to bed down. The weakest had to be tubed with electrolytes and colostrum in a last ditch effort to revive them. And at last there were a few free afternoon hours when we could finally catch a quick nap.
You see what I mean about writing a book . . . most of this was just one storm, out of one calving season….
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