In Montana farm/ranch vernacular, calving has its own special lingo. This Calving guide is designed to help outsiders get a better idea of what happens during calving on Montana ranches.

Calving means that cows and heifers (those cows birthing their first young) are having their calves. In many operations this is synchronized by A-I (artificial insemination) so the heifers will calve within a three-week period. A full calving period – including heifers and cows – usually lasts about two months, starting for some in January, for others in May. The answer to “How far along are you?” gives you an indication of when calving started at that ranch.

Once calving gets underway, cows are moved to the drop pasture, a smaller pasture that’s close to the calving shed, a barn with separate stalls. At night, they are brought into a calving corral so the night calver – the person who pulls the all-night shift – can check them regularly. If it’s cold, the cow is brought into the calving shed; otherwise, she’s left to find a spot in the corral that suits her.

Nightly rounds involve walking through the herd to check to see “who’s starting.” A pair (a cow and her newborn) are usually brought in to the calving shed when it’s below zero or if there’s grannying going on – which occurs if a cow who has not yet calved tries to take over another cow’s newborn. To bring in a pair, the calf is loaded onto a sled, secured with a bungee cord, and pulled into the shed with the mooing mother following along behind.

Occasionally a cow – usually a heifer – needs extra assistance. In this case, the rancher has to pull the calf. This involves putting the cow into a headcatch, hooking a chain (like a German Shepherd collar) around the calf’s protruding hocks and attaching a calf puller, which looks like a comealong (hand winch). Working with the cow as she pushes, the rancher slowly cranks the calf into the world.

For a backwards calf – one that’s coming out back legs first instead of the a front-dive position – the cranking moves much faster. Timing with a backwards calf is critical so the calf doesn’t suffocate. Once the calf hits the straw, it is immediately held upside down overhead until the fluid comes out of its mouth and it begins breathing.

In most cases, calving happens naturally and the newborn calf, usually weighing about 80 pounds, is up and sucking (nursing) within 10-20 minutes. When this is not the case, the rancher helps the calf get started (helping the calf stand and nurse). In cold weather, the calf will first get put in the hotbox (a small shed with a door and heat lamps) to warm up. A calf who still won’t suck is tubed, a process which involves mainlining the mother’s milk right into its stomach.

Working the calves, which usually happens a day after birth, involves two important procedures: tagging the calf, which means putting a tag in the calf’s ear (right ear for bull calves, left for heifer calves) with a number that matches their mother’s number. The calf’s number, gender and date of birth are recorded on a calving spreadsheet for source verification. Heifer calves get a pass on the second procedure but bull calves get cut (castrated). On some ranches this is done right away and on others at branding. After the calves are worked, the pair is turned out (moved) to a different pasture. During this process, there’s a lot of bawling as the cows and calves mother up, which means to locate each other.

Ready to head to the country and test your calving knowledge?

Happy, healthy eating from the Cream of the West crew!


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