Mid-March is an exciting time on a cow outfit. The bred heifer herd, exposed to the bulls the previous summer, are preparing to deliver their first calf. Much preparation goes into this event, beginning a year earlier with the selection of each breeding prospect after weaning. Each heifer calf, weighing close to 500 pounds in the fall, is carefully examined and the very best, genetically and physically, are chosen to remain in the cowherd to replace old or barren cows.
These young heifers are fed all winter and in spring, when they begin to cycle, they are turned out on grass as yearlings. When May arrives they will welcome bulls specifically sorted to service these valuable young cattle. Bulls turned out on heifers must possess attributes that will ensure the first calf will be small, hardy and won't hurt the female during delivery. If all goes according to plan the young, bred female will deliver a healthy calf and recover in time to be bred again that summer.
The Maggie Creek buckaroos, like every other cowboy crew and cattle rancher in the country, knew there was no shortage of work.
A Nice, Tidy Outfit
Maggie Creek Ranch, with its headquarters in the Humboldt River valley just West of Elko, Nevada, has been in the Searle family for over 30 years. Its namesake watershed, Maggie Creek, actually originates in the Independence Mountains to the North, running into the Humboldt near the boisterous mining town of Carlin.
Local buckaroos consider the ranch to be "a nice, tidy outfit" because it features a well-bred Angus-based commercial cowherd that runs on mostly deeded ground, somewhat of a rarity in the rugged, mountain state largely comprised of BLM (federal Bureau of Land Management) holdings. The ranch doesn't run a big cavvy these days, and many of the full and part time help take advantage of this opportunity to ride their own horses to work, which can be a pretty good deal when it comes time to release a good, broke ranch horse into a strong seller's market.
Jon Griggs, soft-spoken and knowledgeable manager of the outfit, has been with the company for fourteen years, seven of those in his present capacity. He's pulled more than a few shifts on these big outfit calving barns since his start over 20 years ago on the Petan Ranch farther north near the Owyhee Desert.
"We have a dozen full time employees," says Griggs, "and 4 or 5 of them stay mostly with the cattle." His day crew at the heifer barn consisted of Hal Barkdull, a 25-year veteran buckaroo working on contract, and Jeff Cerri, an agriculture student studying at Great Basin Community College in nearby Carlin. Hal and Jeff seemed happy considering the stress subjected upon them by the intensity of any calving barn schedule. I caught up to them when their five week job was over half done. Things appeared to be going well, but neither one of them were naive enough to admit it was over. They knew better.
Maintaining The Flow - How They Do It
First-calf heifers need constant attention because they can encounter some minor and not-so minor problems during the calving process. After all, it is their first calf, and the buckaroos want to make sure that if a heifer has trouble or becomes confused maternally she will immediately receive the best care available around the clock. The calving crew checks the heifers once every hour or two, day and night, seven days a week, for signs of calving difficulty or confusion. They are looking for a heifer that is trying to calve but can't, or one that has already calved but is confused about what to do next.
Jon Griggs and his crew know how to expedite the movement of heifers through the Maggie Creek calving facility. It's all about maintaining flow, and with good reason. The goal is to decrease congestion in the feeding groups at any opportunity. "We generally sort the heavies off the main herd about once or twice a week," he explains. "We'll peel thirty or forty of 'em off nice and easy and keep 'em close to the barn where we can watch 'em." Just before dark the day crew will ride out and ease the heavies into a large enclosure directly behind the barn where fresh clean bedding is waiting. This strategy allows the night man an easier shot at bringing a heifer into the barn if she needs help, and decreases the amount of country he has to cover during his nightly checks.
Griggs, Cerri and Barkdull demonstrated their cattle-handling expertise by walking the remaining heifer herd into the lower corner of the big feedgrounds. From this rodear they took turns poking out heavies while casually discussing mundane daily occurrences among themselves, things that had little to do with the task at hand. They knew what they were doing. Even Griggs' slick-haired Border Collie, Jo Jo, took up a position holding rodear and likely would have joined in on the conversation had the boys been talking about anything remotely interesting to the highly intelligent working cowdog.
The job took about forty-five minutes, at which point Barkdull was left in charge of the rodear remnants while Griggs and Cerri pointed the heavy cut towards the far end of the paddock and out the gate to join the others. Back at the calving barn we shared an inside cowboy joke based on the fact that no matter how talented the crew is, there'll always be a calf or two show up in the remnants before anything calves in the freshly-worked heavies. It's a Murphy's Law thing with a buckaroo twist, universal in nature because at that precise moment the same exact thing was likely happening to every other calving barn crew on the continent. We all laughed, then collectively hung our heads for a brief moment before picking up the conversation again.
Keeping Things Straight
The best way to make the heifer calving process run smooth is to spend a few days preparing for the big event. Once the first twenty calves are on the ground there will be precious little time to fix facilities, modify a veterinary strategy or rearrange the direction of the cattle flow. Things just start to happen too fast.
First-calf heifers are renowned for their ability to connect with the rubbery center of a cowboy's brain and plug directly into the frustration lobe, a large pulsating area situated directly under the hat and between the ears. A short list of their nefarious attempts at fouling the crewmembers includes pretending they've already calved while trying to claim someone else's calf; abandoning their squirming calf for no apparent reason immediately after calving; and sticking their head through the open gatehole while being paired out, then refusing to go one step further, choosing instead to leave their bewildered calf and run back to the security of the heavies.
Confusion sometimes takes control of a calving barn, especially when a 'situation' occurs such as an outbreak of scours (viral diarrhea) or a large number of calves arriving all at once during a two-day spring snowstorm. Cowboys and buckaroos, who've chosen a career as primary caregivers to a couple of thousand head of cows and their young 'uns, are often run ragged during this busy season. To keep things straight they rely on information recorded on an hourly basis in a small calving book, carried by each person on the crew and protected like a passport. Heaven help the cowhand whose valuable little book falls out of his pocket halfway through calving. To find it again, laying somewhere out on the feedgrounds, is cause for unbridled celebration. I notice that Jeff Cerri's book is bright red. Not a bad idea, considering.
The Art Of Pairing Out
Congestion is the calving crew's enemy. Too many cattle on the calving grounds at one time fouls the work. Heifers lose track of their calves in the crowd and communicable disease spreads quickly across damp and soiled bedding. To decrease the incidence of these problems the Maggie Creek buckaroos relieve congestion on the calving grounds at any opportunity by pairing out the heifers that have calves old enough to walk the length of the paddock and exit through a gate into a larger, dryer field.
Hal Barkdull has somehow managed to remain relatively sane during a career spanning a quarter century on Nevada's big commercial ranches. Watching him expertly pair out the young calves and their mommas shines a bright spotlight on the subtle dance performed between man, horse, heifer and calf. It's not as easy as Barkdull makes it appear. The heifer has no precedent to draw from because she's never done this before. She is already trained to respond to the buckaroo's request to move forward but this strange maternal instinct compels her to return to pick up her fresh calf. The contradiction is confusing and frustrating to her and Barkdull taps into that emotion, using it to his advantage. The calf is essentially oblivious to much of the external pressures of the buckaroo because he is still trying to cope with his amazing new world. But he listens to the warm assurances of his mother, and will follow her a great distance if given the chance.
"A heifer will take her calf a heck of a lot farther than you'll ever drive it," advises Barkdull. His words embody the essence of pairing out. The buckaroo exerts extremely subtle pressure on the heifer, just enough that she walks in the desired direction but not so much that she steps out of the effective encouraging range of her calf. A top hand will often assemble and position several pairs at a time, like slow-motion juggling. To watch the task from a distance is painfully boring, yet oddly mesmerizing. To pull it off successfully can be one of horsemanship's least recognized feats of skill and self-discipline.
"I think the patience comes with age," Barkdull offers with a smile. Certainly the buckaroo must possess it in quantity, but what about the horse? Mature, good-natured horses are preferred for the task because they are ready when you need them but willing to stand quietly when asked. First-calf heifers are easily upset. They can't handle too much thrown at them in one session and often what starts out relatively calm ends in chaos. A chargey horse is a liability because the heifer perceives snorting, pawing and sideways prancing as too much pressure. She begins to panic and when forced to make a choice between staying with her calf or quitting the pressure and returning to the safety of the heavies, about half the time she will choose the latter. If she decides to quit no amount of harassment by the cowboys will change her mind and she will likely not return to her calf until long after the commotion is over.
Small Piece Of The Puzzle
Cowboys and buckaroos don't take a lot of time to reflect on what it is they actually do for a living. The heifer barn, to some, is an exciting place to be with never a dull moment. It is a complex place, and each heifer is a potential success or disaster story with any number of outcomes. Live calf tally numbers at the end of five weeks are just a small piece of the management puzzle and do not necessarily reflect a successful calving season. Six weeks from now, when they gather this same bunch for branding, Griggs and his boys will be able to assess the real fruits of their labor. The calves will be big, the heifers sleek, and all will be well. But it doesn't end there.
Later in the summer, when the bulls are turned out to service these cattle for their second calf, the buckaroos will notice how many are cycling and ready to breed. And the final payoff signaling a job well done occurs late in fall works, when the heifers return to the ranch once again from summer turnout with their healthy calves. After weaning, the vet will preg check the coming three year-olds and determine how many are bred. Only then can Griggs tally up how many heifers actually calved out, were bred during the summer months and returned home with a healthy calf in the fall.
But for now, Jeff Cerri sums up their current challenge in a way that everyone can understand. "Any time one of these heifers has a calf on her own, it's a good day."