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Irons in the fire: Temporary purgatory

Paul Marchant for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 May 2016

Several years ago, we moved our beginning calving date from the first of February to the first of March. There are merits and drawbacks to either program.

The earlier-born calves obviously came off the mountain and weaned at heavier weights than the younger calves. They also could trail after mama, travel better in the rough country and were more able to utilize the early grass than the younger calves.

With the later calving date, the thinking is that we wouldn’t be calving in the worst of the harsh, miserable late winter and early spring weather that is part of the package that comes with living in southern Idaho.

I’m not really handy with numbers, but after some pencil sharpening and serious number crunching, I determined that no matter how I worked the numbers, one lighter-weight calf that weans off in November is always worth more than the one, two or three early calves that died during a February squall or cold spell.

Just as proper timing has a lot to do with the success of a rain dance, so can nice weather during calving season help cover up a few deficiencies in one’s managerial or animal husbandry skills.

In spite of all my best efforts to control the fickle southern Idaho weather, I wasn’t feeling so smug when an early April snowstorm dumped nearly 2 feet of heavy, wet snow on us – right in the middle of calving season this year.

I spent the better part of two days wading through knee-deep snow, rescuing and warming freezing babies that were born in snowbanks and puddles. Miraculously, we made it through the storm without losing a single calf.

Within four days of the end of the storm, the snow was all but gone from the fields and we were basking in 55ºF weather and ankle-deep mud. That’s another perk to the later calving time.

Even though we may get some nasty storms, you know the bitter weather won’t last for too long. Nicer weather is surely just around the corner. The southern Idaho wind is sure to blow something different in.

Calving season this spring came and went completely devoid of any major wrecks. There were no calving problems with the heifers at all, and even though we lost a couple of calves, we were able to replace them with extra twins that were born to a couple old reliable cows.

We had to fix a prolapse, but we still got a live calf out of the deal. This year was a welcome reprieve from some of the train wrecks that have masqueraded as calving seasons in the past.

I’ve struggled through years marked with sleepless nights spent pulling calves and babysitting stupid heifers that seemed to have no interest in motherhood.

Not too long ago, a calving shed, along with some equipment and various treasures and junk gathered over the years, burned to the ground as a result of an electrical short in a calf warming box. I’ve endured scours epidemics that seemed to affect every other calf that was born.

Nothing can take the wind out of your sails more effectively than spending every waking hour for weeks, doctoring sick calves, only to have a good share of them die – even after you’ve poured your time, blood, sweat, tears and gallons and dollars of electrolytes and medicine into them.

I’m not really a theologian, but I’m pretty certain there could be no purgatory worse than spending an eternity doctoring scouring calves. The threat of such an afterlife should be enough to scare anyone back onto the straight and narrow.

Even though springtime in the Rockies and high desert always drives me crazy with the tease of one or two days of warmth and sunshine, followed by three or four days of wind, snow and rain, I’ve always been sure I only need to hold out for so long before things get better. Better days and weather are always ahead.

Over the years, I’ve tried to learn to look at things differently than I used to. I used to figure things could always be worse – and they usually can be. Now, I try to remember that no matter how bad the situation, things will always eventually get better – no matter how long the night or dreary the weather.

Just like I can count on the sun to sneak up over Cache Peak to the east of the corrals on a frosty morning following a miserable night spent rescuing baby calves out of snow drifts, I know I can always count on the metaphorical sun to rise after the darkest of times and the toughest of trials.  end mark

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