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Published April 16, 2014, 11:32 AM

Reality of calving and lambing vs. idealized version

It’s calving and lambing season again, and thousands of American ranchers are helping a new batch of livestock into the world.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

It’s calving and lambing season again, and thousands of American ranchers are helping a new batch of livestock into the world.

Most Americans don’t know that and wouldn’t care if they did. To them, food appearing on supermarket shelves is as routine as the sun rising in the east. To them, the details are mundane.

No doubt there also are Americans, a few of ‘em anyway, with an idealized version of calving and lambing season. They probably visualize a handsome rancher, his beautiful wife and their tousle-haired child trading affectionate quips, symphonic music swelling in the background, as they battle heroically to protect their animals.

The reality of calving and lambing is far less glamorous. I say that based on my experiences growing up with beef cattle in central North Dakota and, later, as an agricultural journalist.

What’s calving and lambing season really like? This story, from my long-ago high school days, provides the best answer I have.

A calving memory

I was checking on calves at 2 a.m. on a weeknight in late March. It was unseasonably cold: the temperature well below zero, a brutal breeze pushing the wind chill even lower.

I found the newborn calf in a snowbank about 50 yards from the barn. He seemed fine, as did his mother, standing possessively beside him. Maybe he would have been fine in the morning, too, despite the cold night. But “maybe” didn’t cut it.

So I picked him up and began carrying him to the barn. It was slow-going — he was heavy, the ground was rough and the wind tore into my chest — but I’d have gotten there eventually. The cow wouldn’t cooperate, however. Her maternal instincts were surging, and she kept head-butting me, hard, on my back and arms. Maintaining my balance and holding on to the calf were impossible.

So I put down the calf and went to the barn for a homemade sled we used for moving calves. I came back, put the calf in the sled and began dragging him. The cow kept head-butting me, but I managed to pull the calf to the barn. I got the calf and cow inside and shut the door.

I went to check on the rest of the cows. All was quiet. I returned to the barn for a last look at the cow and calf; they were resting comfortably in a straw-covered stall. My chest and throat hurt from breathing the cold air. My arms and back hurt from the head-butting. But the cow and calf were safe and warm, and that’s what mattered.

I went home to bed. On the way, I looked up at the stars — bright and shiny in the clear, clean air — and realized how beautiful they were.

It’s their job

If not for the stars, I wouldn’t remember that cold March night. The rest of it was too commonplace to merit a memory. Helping new animals into the world is what ranchers do many times, every calving and lambing season. It’s their job to help.

That’s what the season is like: ordinary people doing their job, regardless of the circumstances. They do it to make money. They do it because they like animals. Though the job is often difficult, it brings satisfaction, too.

Reality might fall short of the idealized version with the glamorous ranch family and symphonic music. But reality, at least for me, is good enough.