Sunday, March 20, 2011

Calves 2,3,4 -- The coming of Spring

Beginning in March, the color of the mountains in the evening change from blue to pink.  This photo is taken last year by our neighbor Julie Green from her livingroom window looking across our meadow.

For most of the state, March marks the beginning of spring.   For those of us nestled close to the continental divide at 7,000 feet or higher, March means the beginning of  "mud season".  A time when you keep a pair of shoes in the car for wearing in town and you have your mud boots to wade from the house to the car and the car to the house. You wear your pant legs rolled up to your knees or tucked into the tops of your tall boots and no matter how careful you are, the back of your legs have mud on them from climbing into and out of the car or truck.  It's easy to tell who lives out in the county, they're car is the color of Routt County clay.  If we're lucky, mud season will last only until the end of April; if it's a wet year, mud season will last through the rainy days of late May and early June.

March is also the beginning of the windy time here at the ranch.  Wind always comes before the many warm and cold fronts which pass through here and during the last part of March there are many fronts both with and without moisture.  This wind can come at any time of the day or night, is usually strong, but is over in a matter of hours.   These winds are not a danger to the cows or calves except to very young calves that are still getting acclimated to the world outside of the womb.  To help protect the newborn calves, Jim clears a calving ground by removing all but about 6 inches of snow.  The site for the calving ground is carefully chosen.  There is a bluff and a group of trees at the west end of the meadow.  Because our weather normally follows the river from the west, this bluff and trees serve to divert and slow the wind.  The calving grounds are laid out at the foot of the bluff and just east of the trees.  In addition, the snow is piled in such a way as to form a high windbreak along the west side.  It is here that the cattle take refuge during the March storms.

Calf Two was born on March 16 around noon.  Calf Two, like Calf One, is an all black heifer.  The only way to tell the two apart is by their blue eartags.  She was born on a warm sunny day and able to get dry and feed before the sun set.   In the very early hours of the morning the wind started up.  It was followed by a wet spring storm.  By the time we awoke, there was a foot of new wet snow and it was still snowing heavily.  Calves are amazing.  After they are  two or three days old they are resilient and impervious to our type of  bad weather.  It is during the first 24 hours that the calves develop their immunity and strength.  It takes a couple more days of their mother's rich milk for them to develop some body fat to help them maintain their body temperature in bad weather.    We were worried about Calf Two.
The first business of the day was to check on the cows to see 1) whether the wind had blown the feed trail shut, 2) if any more calves had been born and 3) to see how our two calves were doing.  The wind had stopped before the snow started to fall so the feed trails had a foot of new snow but weren’t blown shut.  Luckily, no calves had decided to be born in the bad weather and both calves seemed to be doing okay.  Calf One was bouncing around, racing here and there.  Calf Two was what we call a little droopy, curled up next to her mother for warmth, wet but not shivering. Of course, she wasn't even a day old.  We would monitor Calf Two all day.  Determining when to bring a calf to the house is balancing act.  Step in too early and the calf doesn’t have the opportunity to develop its immune system; step in too late and the calf has a long recovery time or doesn’t recover at all. We feel that allowing nature to take its course, up to a certain point, results in stronger cattle which are suited to this climate.  By feeding time at 3 PM, Calf Two had become stronger and was up and moving around.  The cattle first fed and then another 800 pound bale of hay was taken to spread making dry bedding for the calves and cows. Calves Three and Four made their appearance with no calving problems on this, the first day of spring.  Both are all black; one bull and one heifer.  In the blog, Kansas Cattle Ranch, there is a wonderful photo essay on the birth of a calf which was posted on March 4, 2011.

For us, March means exchanging one shovel for another.  We no longer need the light weight scoop shovels  to shovel roofs.  It is amazing how something as small and light as a snowflake can accumulate enough to cause rafters to buckle, roofs to leak and buildings to collapse.  We change to narrower pointed irrigation shovels to dig drainage trenches along the lane and across the yard.  This allows the melting snow to drain away so the farmstead road and parking area will dry.  In a few more days, we will shovel snow away from the house so the basement won’t flood. 
Shoveling snow from the roof is vital during the winter.
Trenching is important to dry out the farm yard.
Spring comes from the lower altitude of the West.   It slowly creeps closer from downriver and arrives in a way which is uniquely its own.  On this the first day of spring, the snow is over 3 ½ feet deep on the flat ground of the calving grounds and just the tips of the sagebrush are beginning to appear on the west facing hilltop across from the house.  The county roads now show their edges, the paved ones are dry and the dirt ones muddy.  There are a few spots bare of snow on the steep south facing slopes.  Thirteen miles west on Highway 40 around the town of Hayden the snow level on the flats is about a foot.  The edges of the lawns in town are showing and most of the county roads in and around Hayden are muddy only in the low areas.  The south facing slopes are bare and the sagebrush stands completely above the snow.  Seventeen miles west beyond Hayden is Craig.  The only snow in the yards of Craig are piles remaining from shoveling the roofs and the snow depth on the flats outside of town is only three or four inches.  The dirt roads close to Craig are dry and dusty and more than just the south facing slopes that are bare.
 The animals are slowly making their way back into the high country. Around Craig, the elk and deer can be seen even in the middle of  the day biding their time along the roadsides or mingling with the herds of cattle and horses or nibbling on the lawns in town.  They are waiting for the snow levels to fall in the higher country and for the grasses to green and the nutrition to rise into the plants.  Thousands of Canadian geese are floating on the fields of water caused by the snow melting so rapidly.  Around Hayden, there are just a few Canadian geese standing on the few bare spots in the meadows waiting for the snow to melt off to form the large pools of water.  The elk and deer haven’t moved into the area but the first of the Sandhill cranes can be seen. 

 Here at the ranch, the only wildlife are the coyotes that move easily across the snow crust and the skunks that have discovered where we feed the barn cats.  Three Canadian geese pairs have returned to the meadow, spending their time on the newly cleared calving ground waiting for pools of water to form.   It is usually the last day of winter, March 19th, when our sandhill cranes return but this year it will be later because their nesting area is still under  deep snow. 
The depth of snow outside the bedroom window on the first day of spring.

The oldtimers say that beginning on the first day of spring, the snow level will fall an inch a day.  Within three weeks, our snow level will fall to a foot.  It will take another two weeks for the snow to be completely gone from the meadow and by May, the snow will be gone from the valley floor; but winter will still be in the high country.  Happy Spring! 

May brings spring to our fields but winter is less than 10 miles away.

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