Monday, May 20, 2024
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Make calving more fun and less work

This week we share some of the economic reasons for moving calving time to May. But John Marble has noticed that talking about economics – a discussion of costs, inputs, margins, and all that other stuff that either: 1) Puts people to sleep, or 2) Makes them mad as hell. So he’s come up with another reason that might motivate folks.

I was at a meeting a while back where the leader asked a simple question: “What is the most important thing ranchers in this area could do to improve their business?”

Silly me, I suggested calving from early April to early May instead of the cold, cruel, subversive month of February.

Leppy: An orphaned calf. Usually easily recognized by their pot bellies. Sometimes also used referring to a young cowboy who is inept in cowboy ways.

“Oh for cryin’ out loud! We calve that late all we’ll have is a bunch of 400-pound leppy calves to sell. That’s crazy.”

Truth be told, there were some cuss words in there too. Well, I’m slow, but I’m not altogether stupid. I’ve decided that if I were going to try to influence people about when they should calve, I’d have to look for another reason beyond economics, and this year I found it: it’s called Having Fun! Here’s how I reached that conclusion.

A Note About My Business Model

I have a rather unusual ranching model. I run a transient, seasonal grazing operation. This means I have no permanent cattle at all. For the most part, I run pregnant cows that I buy at auction. This means that I have only modest control over genetics or timing. Some of my new cows are preg tested, many are not. Some come from the butcher pen. Some are leftover 4-H projects. I don’t know when those cows were bred or what they were bred to. I usually begin buying cows on February 1, and calving commences shortly there after.

I have to admit, I’ve never really liked calving in February. It’s always cold and wet, and there are just so many things to watch for and so many days when things don’t really go well. It’s just dang depressing, to be honest. I try to toss out the hay on a clean spot each day. I try to add a few bales of old straw to each load, so a fresh calf might find a semi-dry place to lie down. But honestly, calving in February—or even March—means a lot of time spent trying to save new calves from exposure, scours or respiratory failure. And even full-grown cows struggle to get through the nasty months of late winter. Stress and guilt from sick and dying calves make me cranky and hard to live with. It’s just no fun.

This year was much the same as always. With every sick calf I’d toss a few more tools and medical supplies into the back seat of my little truck. Eventually, I had to move the dog (Sassy*, also known as Sassafras or Sassy-pants) up to the front seat with me, and I can tell you this: she doesn’t like that at all. She’s a bit of a Princess, and her idea of a fine day is stretching her frame all the way across the length of the back seat. With all that junk I was hauling around, she was stuck up front in a single bucket seat. And she was not a happy dog.

As luck would have it, spring finally arrived. The endless 38 degree F and raining cat-and-dog days finally ended. The sun broke through and the grass started to grow. We were able to turn the calving herd out on pasture on April 8. Whew! I continued making my rounds, checking on calves, looking at grass, and moving cows every couple of days. Sassy sat in the front with me, pouting, looking longingly toward the back seat, which was still completely covered with my calving junk. The calves were still coming, day after day, but I noticed that mostly I was just counting the new babies as we moved to a fresh paddock.

After about ten days of calving on pasture, I found myself backing up to the treatment shed and unloading all of my gear: buckets and boxes and hardware and meds: all of it going back to the shelf where I had grabbed it from a month or two earlier. And here’s the thing: I was unloading all of that calving stuff even though I was only half finished calving. But clearly, I just didn’t need it any more: I hadn’t treated a calf for over a week. I could only conclude that sunshine and warmth and green grass have some mighty strength-giving power. I simply had no more sick calves to worry over.

Sassy immediately leapt over the passengers’ headrest and stretched her lanky frame across the length of the now-empty bench seat. She wriggled around a bit, then slipped into nap mode. Me? I drove down to the middle of the cow herd and looked around a bit, then opened the gate and watched as the new mothers led their wet calves to the next paddock. And my goodness, wasn’t that fun!

So, here’s my conclusion. Or rather, a few of them. I’m going to try to avoid buying cows that will calve before my projected turnout date, as I can hardly bear the thought of winter calving. I’m giving up on telling folks that the economics say they should calve in the spring rather than winter. Instead, I’m going to tell people how much more fun it is to calve on pasture instead of nasty cold mud.

And also, of course, I’ll be telling folks how much happier their dog will be.

Happy grazing.

*Sassy isn’t actually John’s dog. She belongs to his dear friend, Tami, so she doesn’t always get to ride around with John. But when she does – you know where she wants to be!

And a note from John

When Kathy headed into retirement in September of 2022, I told On Pasture readers: “Keep an eye out for opportunities to read some bits of my fiction. Many of my stories are about people like you: folks who are struggling to survive and thrive in rural America. Kathy is my editor and we’re working away on one set we hope to have ready for you this fall, with others following after.”

Well, it’s fall of 2023, and Kathy and I finished our project. Chicken Dinner at the Steak House is available in paperback and Kindle book on Amazon. We hope you’ll enjoy it!

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.


  1. Kathy, thanks for all you do. This is spot on how cool is it to see a calf at day 2 following mom or catching a sunny nap just across the wire from where mom is grazing. Tons of more fun than checking to see if they are still with us.

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