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.
Cows are reasonably self-sufficient. For half the year they wander around eating the grass that grows underfoot. They keep track of their calves, which nurse whenever they like. In the fall, the calves are sold to generate the year’s income. In the winter, the cows eat hay that is spread on the ground daily. In the spring, they lie down and push out a new calf, usually without help. Outside of an occasional sick or lame animal, cows don’t require much individual handling throughout most of the year.

But during calving season the cowboy operates under the sovereignty of Murphy’s First Law: “Whatever can go wrong, will.”
For that reason, the cows are brought in close to the buildings in preparation for calving. In some operations, those cows showing to be nearest to calving – the “heavies” – are cut out from the herd and put in a smaller field adjacent to the calving shed. A smaller “heavy” bunch makes it much easier to check for problems, and a smaller bunch can be put in a shed if necessary.

A new calf enters the world feet-first, as if diving out of the womb, weighing in the neighborhood of 70 pounds. And that’s when things can begin to go wrong. If anything but the front two feet try to come out first, or if the calf is much larger than 70 pounds, things will generally hang up.
A good cowboy is checking his cows every two hours and watching for the signs of imminent birth. A cow in labor will be restless, may get up and lay down, and walks with her tail outstretched behind her.

As long as the labor is normal, it is better to leave a cow alone. But when it becomes apparent that things are not progressing, the cowboy must step in and help.

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 sucking 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.

There is always a percentage of death loss at birth, ranging from 1 to 10%, leaving some cows without calves to raise. And there are always orphan calves – a twin or calf whose mother is weak, lame, sick, un-motherly, or just plain mean. The orphan calves are grafted on a good young cow that has lost her calf.

Many modern ranches use pickups and four-wheelers year- round. There have been years when I worked on purebred outfits and handled all the cattle afoot. But I find it much more efficient to spread the cattle out over a bigger area where the job can’t be accomplished without a horse. Without the stress of confinement and the accompanying accumulations of manure, problems are cut in half. I have made it a point whenever possible to work where horses are an integral part of the operation, and calving time for me has always been a horseback time of year.

Everyone is happy to see warmer weather come. As the snow melts, the calves require less vigilance and the cows require less feed. The days are longer and fewer layers of clothing are necessary.

Next comes branding. It takes several people about two minutes per calf to run each one into a chute where he is branded, maybe castrated and dehorned, and given vaccinations. It takes half that long with a good crew to rope and drag the calves to the fire for the same operation. It really isn’t nearly as labor-efficient to rope the calves, but it’s a lot more fun. And branding is a hot job that requires a lot of beer!

On a big ranch, a man can be on horseback for hours a day during calving, every day from the beginning of calving in March until the herd is moved to summer range in June. He can start calving on a green-broke colt and finish up the season having turned him into a cow horse.

From my perspective, the cows aren’t really making you money anyway – the only reason I choose to raise cows is to keep my horses busy.

So if you don’t use horses in your operation you’d just as well sell the ranch and invest in something that does make a profit, and leave the cattle to a cowboy.

For more stories from Kent Hanawalt, check out his book, Ain’t This Romantic!?!: Adventures of a Twentieth Century Cowboy, available on

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