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Calving season is far from 'easy money'

I've heard people say raising cattle is "easy money." That's laughable to me, as someone who has been connected to the cattle industry my entire life. Sure, those big calf checks look good when they come in, but when most of that money goes back ...

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The first calf to be born at the Schlecht place came unassisted and healthy. That's not always how calving goes. Photo taken March 27, 2018. (Jenny Schlecht/Agweek)

I've heard people say raising cattle is "easy money." That's laughable to me, as someone who has been connected to the cattle industry my entire life. Sure, those big calf checks look good when they come in, but when most of that money goes back to the bank to pay the operating loan for the expense of making feed and to pay other notes required to keep the place running, the result at the end is far less than many would expect and sometimes seems barely worth the effort.

But even if the money was substantial, it's worth noting that the labor involved in a cow-calf operation is hard to even describe to someone who hasn't experienced it. And not much can compare to the labor of calving season in the Upper Midwest.

Our calving season began March 24, with the easy, unassisted birth of a calf out of a heifer we're watching over the winter for someone else. That first calf is always exciting, and it's even better when it starts off on a good hoof, like this one did. And it's a reminder that, despite the piles of snow and slop, spring and summer will return.

But the first calf also brings a certain dread. Because snow and slop are the natural enemies of the cattle rancher in calving season, as are cold temperatures.

My dad calves in the heart of winter in Montana - January, February and March. He raises registered Black Angus cattle and sells yearling bulls. In order to meet customer needs, those bulls have to be born early to be mature for the next breeding season. Plus, he wants to be done calving before spring fieldwork.

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The downside of that is those months often are bitterly cold or snowy. Even though south central Montana tends toward warmer and drier than here in central North Dakota where I now live, it still can be rough on calves and humans. This year has been the worst of all worlds out that way, with near-record snowfall and subzero temperatures interspersed with warm ups that melt the snow enough to bring the slop to ankle deep.

That means sleepless nights for the people who tend to the animals, as it can be detrimental or fatal to a newborn calf to experience the chill of those puddles.

I recall one night from my childhood when I was being Dad's helper - whether because he needed my help or because I begged him to come along isn't clear in my memory. It started as going out to help him as he pulled one calf. But it was a busy calving night. We started bringing pairs or cows near calving into the crowded barn, putting chilled calves into the warmer, getting calves to drink and rotating the pairs out that were ready to be in the cold.

What is the most vivid to me about that memory is the feeling that we'd never get a break. Every time we thought we were done and started to catch our breath, we'd spot another cow in the corner with her tail in the air. We'd shake our heads and laugh and do what needed to be done.

Eventually, we caught up enough to go in the house. I slept probably until late morning the next day. Dad, I'm certain, did not. He might have gotten a little sleep, but there were more cows to be brought in, more calves to be saved, not just that day but in the days that followed.

Calving can be relentless in this part of the world, where we fight the conditions to take care of our animals. I won't even get started on the feeling when those efforts fail.

It's not easy money, and I don't know if any amount of money would make it seem easy. Is it worth it? Some days we wonder. But it's also a rewarding feeling to see a calf kicking in the pasture in the summer, knowing it never would have made it if not for what we did.

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