By Kent Hanawalt

In Montana, most ranches are termed cow/calf operations—the herd of cows is maintained year-round to produce a new crop of calves every year. The bulls are put in with the cows at a deliberate time in the summer so that the calves will arrive during a pre-determined two-month period in the “spring.”

I hedge a little on the term “spring.” Depending on the operation, calving begins anywhere from mid-January to mid-April. And depending on the year, the snow, wind, and extreme cold come intermittently at any time during that same period. Thus, weather is always an important factor in calving.

A number of things can go wrong with the birth of a new calf, and the cowboy must be watchful. When the calf finally does arrive, he is soaking wet. An attentive mother immediately arises and begins to lick him off with her big, rough tongue. The licking both stimulates the calf and removes the excess moisture. Most calves are up and suckling within a couple of hours—still “wet behind the ears.” A brand new calf can stand an amazing amount of cold if he has been cleaned up by his mother and has a belly full of milk.

In addition to the seven days a week feeding regimen that has been going on since the first of the year, managing the births of all the new calves is a 24-hour process. Cows are usually checked every couple of hours. Smaller operations utilize Ma, Pa, Grandma, and the bigger kids to make at least one of the checks at night. Bigger ranches often hire a “night man,” as well as extra help for a couple of months. When the weather turns bad it can become an “all hands on deck” affair to keep everything alive.

April showers in Montana are usually snow showers. But the cows are not waiting for May flowers; they want green grass! At last the ground bares off, and the days become warmer. The new calves can be seen romping in the fields all over Montana.

Another year has begun.