An annual checkup

Ranchers examine cows for pregnancy, illness

On the plains west of Craig, before the spectacular canyon scenery comes into view, a modern cowgirl and her hands run an operation called Rio Ro Mo Cattle.

Owner Margaret Whittaker earned a living with "administrative work" before she started ranching in 1996. She prefers ranching "without a doubt."

She's more the meticulous record keeper and articulate businesswoman than the weathered Marlboro Man. But the cows didn't seem to be the wiser Tuesday as she deftly vaccinated them with a hypodermic needle in each hand. She shouted orders to ranch hands and spotted a "bad mamma" as the hoofed beasts lumbered through a series of wooden alleys on their way to the "squeeze chute," where a local veterinarian checked the cows to see if there was a calf in utero.

"She's good," veterinarian Wayne Davis yelled, pulling his arm out of the back end of giant brown Hereford he determined was pregnant.

Whittaker hired Davis at $1.35 per cow or $70 an hour to check 540 cows she hopes bred successfully this summer.

Davis feels a cow's uterus through the adjacent intestinal wall to decide if it is "good" or "open" -- not bred -- or not far enough along in gestation to produce a spring calf.

He "preg checks" more than 5,000 cows each fall in northwest Colorado.

Often, Davis can feel the developing calf or an enlarged uterus. In open cows, he traced out the shape of the uterus to be sure of his call. The open ones took him a little longer.

Most of the time, he inserted his arm up to the middle of his biceps and quickly shouted his diagnosis.

"He's one of the best," Whittaker said.

Davis' expertise was obvious from the subtle movements to keep his hands and fingers out of harm's way to his firm handling of the cows as they bucked and gyrated in the squeeze chute where he examined them.

"Certain things about this are potentially dangerous," Davis said in his characteristic nonchalant manner.

A series of wooden walkways led the cows from the corral to the squeeze chute. The cows were coaxed and prodded through the alleys and at gates along the way the calves were separated.

It was a stubborn struggle much of the time, as the reluctant cows moved slowly or not at all, and sometimes even tried to back their way out of the alley, causing a congested traffic jam of sorts.

When the cows reached the end of the line and saw the chute that opened into a separate corral, they sensed freedom and bolted for the opening.

And that's where Rodney Culverwell, the Rio Ro Mo foreman was waiting. Culverwell held the handle to operate the head gate on the squeeze chute.

The head gate has an opening that allows a cow's head to be on one side with its body on the other.

As each cow dashed for home, Culverwell threw the gate shut and the cow piled up against the head gate, stopped by its shoulders.

He had to let it run far enough to poke its head in the open but shut the gate before the cow escaped completely.

It seemed second nature to Culverwell, who has been ranching all his life. Still, he warned not to stand in front of the gate, because if he missed, the fleeing cow could trample anything in its path.

Once each cow was caught in the gate, the work began. Davis checked for pregnancy, Culverwell applied new ear tags, Whittaker administered two vaccines and Randy's father, Gerald Culverwell, applied a dose of de-wormer and insecticide.

"If you don't use it, you're wasting feed because you're feeding the parasites," Davis said of the de-wormer.

In speedy, assembly line fashion, hundreds of cows marched through the chute, and by 10 a.m. more than 200 had visited the "clinic."

It was a loud, dusty affair, with cows slamming against the head gate, kicking up dirt and manure while the hundreds waiting their turn mooed and bellowed.

Standing in a rain suit covered in grime, Davis said it was actually better than recent years when freezing temperatures or gusts of wind made the process truly unpleasant.

"A problem arises when you have to itch your nose," Davis said, his gloved arms covered in manure.

No one seemed to mind the noisy, dusty work. It was a chance to check each cow thoroughly, looking for signs of illness or injury. Davis said area ranchers are quite keen to the health of their herds. He's never had to deny someone a health certificate because the ranchers notice the sick cattle before he does.

A lot of ranchers know a cow by looking at their faces, Davis said. "They know them that well."

Whittaker and Randy Culverwell were no different.

Sometimes, just as a cow was snared in the chute, Whittaker or Randy Culverwell would yell to Davis not to bother checking this particular cow, for one reason or another.

Whittaker maintained a list of "get rid of" cows -- ones with weak mothering instincts, injuries, or a "bad bag," bloody milk, or no udders at all.

The majority were healthy, plump and pregnant.

And when Whittaker called for a mid-morning break, she counted once again the pregnant cows

and confirmed the number was

175.

Only half way through the herd, Whittaker seemed pleased.

"And that's just the first batch," she said.

At lunchtime, Whittaker handed out sandwiches and sodas. The conversation went from a discussion about which kind of chutes the vet prefers, to Butch Cassidy, to Gerold Culverwell's philosophy about mistakes the agriculture industry has made.

"We've done a poor job of PR," the 60-year-old rancher said. "People forgot where food comes from. They think it comes off the shelf."

Jeremy Browning can be reached at 824-7031 or jbrowning@craigdailypress.com.

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