Spring is truly lovely, isn't it? Such a wonderful time to watch the new growth after a long winter as the weather warms and the mountain snowpack begins to thaw and the gentle spring rains build up ground water.
The hills are greening up and the whole valley seems to be cast in an emerald glow. And when the morning sun hits those hills, the place is bathed in that magical golden light and in that moment, if you stay real still and quiet and let it sink into your bones, you could almost imagine that this is all there ever was and all there ever will be and no worries could ever touch you again.
All you need to do is breathe and listen.
That's about when you remember that no, unfortunately, this ISN'T the only moment ever. Grass isn't the only thing growing in that ground with all that lovely water and sunshine.
That's when you remember that there are very real and present worries to resolve right now.
No, there is also lots of fresh, new bacteria growing and they've been working hard to evolve and survive themselves- some at the expense of our new calves. New calves who, like all children, put their curious little mouths on everything they can find.
The biggest problem at this time of year is scours. Scours is basically calf diarrhea and it hits hard. Every year, the strain of bacteria that causes it evolves, like any bacteria, and this year's strain is a rough one.
The thing about scours is that if we don't catch it and treat it in time, the calf will get dehydrated. Once a calf is dehydrated, it is lethargic and weak and less likely to nurse and more likely to become less active. Without the extra energy from regular movement and digestion, body temperature drops- especially in these still-cold spring nights. If a calf gets too cold, it will become hypothermic. Once it becomes hypothermic, the only chance we have at saving it is reheating it to a stable temperature.
So we go out every morning and rush thru every field checking each and every calf- is there external evidence of scours? Will the calf get up? If it does, does it move quickly and steadily or is it lethargic and staggering? If it doesn't, what is the temperature in its mouth? It needs to be hot- and if it is, that calf is better off given a tube of electrolytes and what is basically the calf version of Pepto-Bismol and continued surveillance in the field. Sometimes they also get a special little calf jacket to keep them warm! A lukewarm mouth is a quickly dropping temperature that we can likely save. Cold... well, that depends how long it's been cold. Either way our job is the same- bring it into headquarters out of the wind and create a cocoon of warmth with old sheets and a blow dryer.
It can take hours to bring a calf's body temperature up to a normal- and stable- temperature and it takes still longer to wean it from the warmth of the blow dryer. But there isn't a member of our team who isn't willing to do what it takes to save a calf. And there is nothing better than returning a stable calf to its mom back out in the pasture.
So, yes, spring is indeed glorious- new calves, fresh lovely grass, growth and life all around- and a charge to do everything in our power to keep the lives in our care healthy and happy!
The most reputable ranchers always put a great deal of thought and care into their breeding programs. We have been carefully cultivating the genetics in our herd since the brothers originally began ranching twenty years ago. From selecting animals with desirable physical & temperamental traits to breed, to culling those animals with negative characteristics (for example, the fence jumpers or those overly defensive cows), every season requires attentiveness to continually improve the genetics of the herd. Quality breeding impacts so many aspects of the final beef product, but it also can impact the quality of life of both the ranchers and their animals.
Three-way vigour, or heterosis, is essentially the best result of animals bred to incorporate the best characteristics of three chosen breeds- ours being Black Angus, Red Angus and Charolais. Achieving this three-way vigour can improve fertility, longevity, maternal instincts, temperament and survivability of the calf, which are just a few of the traits we select for. Clearly the other piece of the genetic puzzle is improving the quality of the beef at the end of the day- improving marbling, red meat yield and consistency. This just means that building the genetics of a herd isn't something that can happen in a season or two. It is a long-range project- so take a moment to relish the fact that we have been cultivating our herd genetics for around two good decades now!
For the moment, though, we are right in the midst of calving season and they are coming at us fast! One of the most enjoyable parts of this hybridization is seeing the way those genetics play out on the physical side. It never fails to delight me to see such variety between cow and calf- but no more so than to see a little mini-me at a new mama's side.
We've also seen a surprising number of twins this year and there is no better way to see the evidence of the solid mix of genetics than to see a black white face cow give birth to both gray white face and red white face calves!
I must say that I personally fully appreciate the genetic progress so far as temperament is concerned. I am out working new calves with our team daily, which has us holding those new calves down to tag them, spray the umbilicus with iodine to prevent infection and give them a shot of vitamins and minerals to help prevent deficiency.
Mamas don't generally like whatever comes between them and their babies- some can get vocal or agitated, but most are just concerned and curious. Some stand patiently back, lowing gently for their baby to come. Many will step forward to sniff their calf while we work, sniff our coats or hands and just evaluate what intentions we have with their little ones. Although we are always on alert for any signs of agitation or aggression, we have yet to come across a cow that can't be calmed with a quiet, firm voice to bring her back down. I have heard enough stories from other ranchers to know to appreciate this characteristic whole-heartedly. These are big animals and it is so much easier to work with a large animal than to fight against one!
From beginning to end, both nurture and nature have a powerful impact on the life, productivity, workability and quality of the beef cattle a rancher produces- which in turn, I might add, impacts the life, productivity, workability and quality of the rancher as well. Ranching is not simply a job- it is a way of life. As always, it is our goal to continually improve the quality of every life in our care.
The last couple of weeks have been absolutely relentless with these snowstorms. It is nearly March and spring is nowhere in sight- but the weather is so bipolar I'm sure it will suddenly decide to melt off one day and start blooming!
At the beginning of winter we were just hoping and praying for a solid snowpack to lead us into the coming El Nino summer- water is always the question and we need solid irrigation to keep us in grass and hay to harvest for next winter. Last year our snowpack was a bit low, so there were a few winter pasture fields we worried about getting enough water to really get a good graze ready for the herds to come in on from their summer pastures, but by and large they came into some really deep, lush grassy fields. The snow held off for long enough that they maximized the grazing potential of each field. Sometimes if it snows too much too early, all that graze goes to waste because it winds up flattened beneath the snow and becomes much less accessible. This year we needn't have worried- nearly every field was grazed optimally before the first real snow.
The other part of that concern is the hay already stored up for the winter season- and in our case, banked for following years. After a summer like this one, the question is whether or not you'll have to buy feed. It is vital in these cold months that cows get enough to eat, and of nutrient and protein-dense feed. Not only does it keep them at a healthy weight and nutritionally healthy, it gives them energy and helps to keep them, and in turn, their calves, warm. Fortunately, we have been able to harvest enough over the past two years that we have hay banked for a year such as this- a cold winter following a dry summer. Not every rancher has been as lucky, and at the current prices of $160 per ton (one ton feeds about 60-65 head per day), it can get truly painful.
When I was a kid, I remember the weather worries of all the local farmers- but it pretty much all seemed focused on rain. I don't recall ever hearing any emphasis on the importance of snowpack, but then again all I remember feeling about winter was that it was terribly inconvenient. I truly did not appreciate how much everything in agriculture is impacted by the weather, from the day to day to full seasons and even years.
After a worrisome December and January, the snowpack had built enough that it appeared irrigation would be manageable, but not ideal. We are in the last week of February now and the snowpack in our region is over 120% of the normal range. So I'm finally ready to let out the breath I've been holding over snowpack- but now the worries for our new calves in the cold and the wet are ready to take the place of snowpack concerns.
I don't love rolling around on my quad in icy or slushy fields and roads in twenty degree temperatures, my hands and face freezing, my breath condensing on my eyelashes and my nose hairs freezing. But all it takes is one brief moment picturing these very wet, wide-eyed calves being expelled from the warm confines of their mothers' wombs into this same world I complain about from within my layers of warm and dry Carhartts to get me rushing out the door every single morning to help the team check every field and make sure all is well. Every day that we find healthy, happy calves nestled in the feedline is a victory- and every time we find a calf or cow in distress we have an immediate opportunity to resolve that distress. All it takes is getting our eyes on the problem in time.
Winter is a harsh season, but once the initial checks for the morning are done, its quietness and beauty are worth a pause to simply absorb. For all the worry and the inconvenience, there is always a moment in there to let the stillness of the snowfall blanketing the earth suspend time, to sit quietly and watch as the cows lick their nestled babies. To listen to them low gently, talking to their new little ones. To watch the older calves kick up their heels and frolic in pure, unbridled joy at this big, new world to explore. To breath in the crisp air and just be there fully in that moment.