Ranchers busy with calves

Warm weather a blessing during calving season

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Showalter drove across the pastures while the cows eyed him nervously. Their calves quit suckling, ran behind their mothers and watched the machine roll by.

Some of the baby cows were napping in the morning sunlight, and they didn't budge. Others stood on their wobbly legs and bounced around, uncoordinated but full of energy.

Showalter runs 200 head of cattle in the Breeze Basin, east of the airport and the golf course south of Craig. By the time calving season is over, the size of his herd will double.

On Thursday, Showalter had 130 calves on the ground, and more than sixty on the way.

The season has been smooth, with only four casualties. Three of the cows produced twins, so Showalter really is down only one calf, and that's unheard of, he said.

"This spring has been wonderful," Showalter said.

A lack of spring blizzards has meant less work for Showalter during what typically is the busiest time of the year for ranchers.

He only had to pull one calf. The rest have been natural births. During some calving seasons, he's had to shuttle animals back to the barn so calves could be born inside, away from freezing temperatures and blowing snow.

He has used a wooden box with an attached space heater to warm up the animals born in a storm. He has even given the newborns instant coffee to perk them up and get the blood flowing.

"From calving season through fall, we probably put in, oh geeze, about 70 to 80 hours a week," Showalter said.

Ideally, ranchers should check on their herds every four hours during calving season. Showalter said he doesn't check the herds that often during the night unless there's a storm. During snowstorms, "you don't sleep," Showalter said.

Despite the warm weather Thursday, Showalter drove through the herd and looked at every animal. His grandchildren were on board for their first trip to the ranch since calving season began.

Showalter looked for signs of health in the cattle. He looked for cows that might be starting labor.

His grandchildren, Kaitlin Lee, 6, and Conner Lee, 9, looked at the animals differently.

They noticed the cute faces and the shy movements of the calves. They giggled as the calves ran in clusters, bounding over short sagebrush plants and occasionally stumbling on their new legs.

They oohed and aahed over the calves that were asleep in the grass.

The children took particular interest in a pair of black calves that had large patches of white on their hides.

"That one's mine," Kaitlin said, though she hadn't decided what to do with it now that it was hers. Her mother suggested maybe she could raise the calf and show it at the county fair.

Showalter grinned at his grandchildren's enthusiasm. He also seemed to notice the innocence of the newborns.

But ranching is a business, and Showalter was happy to see the emerging crop of cattle that will be his payoff in the fall. But the payoff won't make him rich and will barely cover his costs, which is why Showalter says ranching "is more of a way of life than anything."

And in that way of life, calving season is a new start.

"Basically, it's the beginning of our income for a year," Showalter said.

Showalter is a meticulous keeper of records. He reluctantly admits that computer record-keeping is essential. But in his shop, he watches the calving season progress by referring to a wooden board.

The board, covered in a grid of chalk lines, leans against the wall. Each point of the grid has a nail, and before calving season began, each nail bore an ear tag. As the calves are born, Showalter takes the ear tags from the grid and tags the new calf. By looking at the grid, he can see which cows have been born, and how many more he expects.

In the fall, the 85-pound infants will have grown into cattle weighing 500 pounds or more. Then they'll be shipped off, their mothers will be checked for pregnancy and Showalter will be waiting for spring for the next crop of calves.

In the meantime, he'll have to take care of hundreds of details. Showalter will brand and vaccinate the calves. He will have to harvest enough hay to keep the cattle alive through the winter.

But on Thursday, it was still calving season, and Showalter was eyeing a plump, black-and-white cow that had strayed from the herd.

She wasn't switching her tail yet, or kicking at her belly, but Showalter noticed signs that a calf was on the way.

"She'll give birth this afternoon," Showalter said. He put the four-wheeler in gear and made muddy tracks across the pasture to check on the rest of the herd.

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

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