The pain of calving season

Tory Vagneur
Saddle Sore

If it can go wrong, it usually does, after dark. Especially during calving season. Cattle are hard-wired with most everything they need to get through this life, but just as with people, things don’t always go the way we want them to.

For me, the beginning was as an observer, rousted out of the house after dinner every night to help my dad check the expectant Hereford cows, just to see if we needed to do anything to help the process. My job, as a kid, was quite cool — I got to drive the pickup truck with a large spotlight attached to the frame on the driver’s side.

Dad would scramble over the snowbank and down the hill about 20 yards below the county road with the help of the spotlight and work his way into the corral where we kept the cows getting ready to calve. It was my job to keep the light on him, much as a production manager at the Wheeler might keep a performer on the stage lit up.

If dad stopped to check a cow, or had to examine a recently delivered mama with say, a prolapsed uterus, it was my job to put dad’s work area in the best light. Also, I had to drive along with his movements, as close to the edge of the road as possible, being careful not to steer the pickup over the side of the road.

Most of the time, I did an admirable job, but at times a few cranky words would waft up from the corral, getting my sometimes-fickle attention. I was, after all, 12 years old, trying valiantly to take the place of my grandfather who had died the previous spring.

The next winter, we’d moved in to granddad’s much larger house and my dad built a new, covered calving shed within a few steps of the house, complete with electricity. It was the difference between delivering babies in a cold, dark, dirt corral and delivering them into clean, warm straw, with heat lamps available if needed.

There was an intensive care unit cordoned off from the rest of the area where sick, weak or otherwise afflicted calves were placed to be examined and treated. It was a marvel of modern calving technique, at least for the time (and probably still so today), and my dad was justifiably proud of the whole affair.

One of the most important things a calf must do upon birth is suckle its mother, not just for the nourishment, but for the colostrum, a mix of antibodies and essential proteins contained in the milk that gives the calf protection from disease. Passive immunity it is called. In the first 6 hours after birth, a calf should consume about 12 percent of its body weight in colostrum to gain the necessary protection.

This is one of the main reasons ranchers watch the calving area 24 hours a day, leaving nothing to chance. Every once in a while, a first-calf heifer or an older cow would ignore her calf, or the newborn wouldn’t suckle, and then intervention was necessary.

Deep within the calving shed we had a stall with a swing-gate attached to the wall on one end. The recalcitrant cow would be coerced into putting her head into the narrow end while someone would pull the gate tight against her side, leaving her almost immobile. This would give the calf a chance to suck and gain the nutrition of life. It also was an education for the cow, and usually after that, nature went forward as intended.

Naturally, nothing works perfectly, and clearly I remember the way-below zero night my dad and I went to utilize the stall just mentioned. The cow was particularly ornery, trying to take us or kick us as we steered her into the swing-gate apparatus. At last, we had her cornered, and as I latched the gate to hold her tight, she acquiesced to the whole procedure and stopped fighting. The only problem was, she was standing on my left foot, which was covered in a lined rubber boot. At umpteen below zero, a huge cloven hoof imprinting itself on one of your own hooves is a most painful event.

This previously wild, intractable beast of a cow (about 1,400 pounds worth) was now totally calm, refusing to move her hoof, and I absolutely knew in my heart that she knew exactly what she was doing. Dad was ignoring my yelps of pain as he got the calf’s head under the cow’s flank, telling me she’d move pretty soon, once the calf started to suck. Goddamit, dad!

Over the years, we brought thousands of calves into this world, bouncing, jumping, cute little creatures that would melt your heart. But on some level, I still hate that sweet, brutal bitch that mashed my foot.

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at


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