Winter Calving in Wallow County

An Angus cow keeps her day-old calf close on Jim Brick’s ranch east of Enterprise. February and March are the principal calving months for most ranches in Wallowa County.

Three in the morning comes too soon this time of year. Boots don’t fit and buttonholes seem too small. You feel weary and fumble-fingered in the early morning cold. You wonder why you ever stick with this ranching business, anyway.

But you know she’s out there, that first-calf heifer that stood alone in the far calving pasture corner, head down, tail held stiffly sideward, waiting uncertainly for motherhood.

Maybe, you think, maybe you’re getting too old for this. Maybe you shouldn’t have kept that heifer. What was her pelvic diameter anyway? Maybe next year you won’t keep any heifers, maybe you’ll try a different bull, maybe….

The kitchen door slams behind you louder than a cannon. Thank God the old truck always starts. You check for the calf kit, rope, flashlight, pulling chains, toss the bottle of hot soapy water into the cab, scrape the three-hour-old frost off the windshield, and crank the engine to life. Next year, you think, next year we’ll calve the heifers in the barn. Next year we’ll feed in the evening and calve in the daylight. Next year…..

The pickup creeps across the calving pasture. Cows blink and bow out of the headlight’s glare, moving fluidly like fish in some dark pool, wide-eyed, worried, gathering their knobby-kneed calves and stalking away, not trusting your intentions.

In the pickup’s high beams the corner looms empty. Vacant. No heifer. No calf. slowly you arc the headlights northward. Two pinpoints of light gleam, low to the ground.

The pickup groans deliberately in granny gear, closer, closer. Pin-point eyes see-saw back and forth, up and down. Two big eyes. And two little ones. You stop the truck, dim the high beams and sigh.

She’s done it. You knew she would. Her calf peers goggle-eyed into the lights as the heifer, oblivious to anything else, licks her wet newborn to life. The fading starry night lies silent except for the heifer’s low murmurs to her calf, and muted munching from the pasture.

This is really what the cow business is all about, you think. This is worth the too short, too long, too cold nights, the tough deliveries, the Hurricane Creek winds, this heifer and her new calf. You share the joy of this birth. You bred a heifer to calve easy, watched her grow, picked a bull with low calving weights and good genes. You deserve to savor this moment. And you wouldn’t trade it for anything.

You reach for the calving book in your shirt pocket. Record the time, you think, and the date. But all you feel in the mellowing darkness is the lining of the small-button-holed shirt you donned inside out with your mind on bigger concerns. Well, on nights like this you can’t get everything right, now, can you.

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