Many of the stories set on ranches mimic the romantic old west version in place of reality. Most ranchers turn the bulls into the herd so the calves will be on the ground before the onset of the bloodsucking flies. On our ranch I targeted late February and March. If the cows calved too soon, I was trudging through the snow trying to save newborns before they froze to the ground. Calving too late meant the bugs would weaken the crop to sickness. During the calving season, a rancher may work twenty-four hours to save every calf. In the winter there is no such thing as weekends and holidays. The animals require feed and water on a daily basis. Only in the summer do things relax unless you grow your own hay.
Below are a few facts I learned the hard way:
- Ranching is hard work with long hours and poor reimbursement. The people who ranch do it because they love the life.
- Beware! If a baby calf bawls in distress, the entire herd of momma cows will run to the rescue!
- Cows have purply-black pointed tongues that can wrap around grass blades and run up their nostrils for cleaning! Ewwwwww.
- In Midwestern spring and summer, blood sucking flies can cause anemia in small calves.
- A good momma cow protecting a calf is one of the meanest critters on the ranch.
- If you want to know the cow population on the ranch, ask the rancher how many herd bulls he owns.
- A good herd bull covers around twenty-five cows.
- Acorns can be lethal to bovines.
- Bovines can leap a fence as clean as a deer. However, sometimes parts of the bull don’t make it over the top strand of barbed wire. Ouch!
- One of the most dangerous jobs on a ranch is feeding cattle by hand. They can crush a human between them.
- I was the only woman rancher at the monthly cattleman’s meeting. Duh, it is called cattleman’s.
- A calf can bawl with only its muzzle protruding from the cow’s vagina. Go figure!
- A cow-calf operation means the rancher owns cows and raises calves until they are ready for weaning: 200-300 pounds. They are sold to feed lots, where they are raised to 600-700 pounds.
- I have no clue how a handful of cowboys could drive a herd anywhere let alone over hundreds of miles of open country! It’s easier to call the herd to food than drive them along the fence line. That works only if they are hungry.
- The cattle respected the cattle dog more than any other animal, including people, on the ranch.
- With my dog at my side, a mean momma or a hungry herd didn’t approach me.
- My cattle dog, Bandit, trotted on our ranch in need of a home. He’s pictured waiting in the manure spreader. When the pasture was too soft for my truck, I used the small spreader and tractor. While Bandit kept the cow away from me, I would catch the new calf, put it in the manure spreader, tag, tube, and castrate the bulls, then release it. Mother cows have been known to jump in a pickup or, in our case, the manure spreader, to protect their calves. We had a few cows test Bandit’s bite, but never moved past him.
- Bandit often played himself in my cowboy romances.
Calving Assists: 5 Senses
Since calving success can make or break a rancher, writers often use the birth scene to increase the story tension. The Internet can provide many sources, but it often doesn’t give you the tools to set the scene. So what’s it like to assist with a delivery, besides dangerous? I’ve listed a few tips that may help you with your next calving scene below:
- Visual: How does the cowboy or cowgirl know a cow is close to delivery or having problems?
Prior to delivery, cows tend to leave the herd.
Cows may repeatedly stand up and lie down.
- Auditory: How does a cow call the calf?
Cows don’t actually bawl or moo to the calf, they have a different call. It’s a very low guttural tone—almost a small grunt. If the cow is restrained during the delivery, she will make this sound the minute you place the new calf near her head and then start the process to lick the calf dry.
The calf is usually silent at this time.
- Smell: Cows are not clean animals. Go to your local nursery and you can get a test whiff of cow aromatherapy from natural fertilizer. However, amniotic fluid tends to smell the same for all animals. I don’t know how to describe it, but to me that smell is on a new infant. It’s protein so it smells kind of sweet and earthy at the same time.
- Touch: What does the calf feel like? The hooves are soft at birth and feel like a wet callous. They harden as they dry. The coat on a new calf is butter soft and there’s nothing like the skin on their nose—like velvet. Inside the cow’s vagina is warm and moist as you would expect and there’s not a lot of room. After all, you are in the birth canal and new calves can weigh up to eighty pounds! Note: I could not lift an eighty pound calf onto my horse. It was hard for my husband.
- Taste: Ewwww! They certainly aren’t steak on the grill yet. So, we won’t go there. When you’re at this end of the cow, keep your mouth closed!