The cows are starting to calve. Most of them do the job themselves without any problem, but a vigilant cowboy can often enough make the difference between life and death for a cow or a calf.
The bigger ranches - say 1000 head or more - calve their cows out on the range, with cowboys riding through them regulary to look for trouble. I've done my share of range calving, and that is still my preference. But weather can sometimes play havoc - see the story "Blizzard" at http://www.montanacowboycollege.com/blizzard.htm
The medium-sized and smaller ranches usually gather their cattle into a smaller field, or even a corral, to calve. One calf represents a much larger percentage of income to the smaller operator, and smaller outfits more likely to be doing their cowboying afoot - thus they elect to contain the cows in a smaller enclosure where a horse isn't necessary.
There has also been a marked trend toward earlier calving - some people start in January, and many in February. The nights are long and the temperatures can easily be far below zero. In that case it is necessary to have a shed to protect the new-born calves. Most of those folks run their cattle into a shed at dark, and check them through the night.
When cattle are concentrated into a small lot, their impact is also concentrated. The ground can quickly become ankle-deep muck. Cows eat their hay from that muddy ground, and lie down in it. That transfers the good "organic material" to their udders, and the calves can ingest it. If the entire herd is confined from the beginning of calving, some of those cows will have been making their contributions to the muck and confusion for nearly two months before they calve. If the cows are run in the shed at night, they are wall-to-wall early in the season, and straw must be continually added to keep the floor reasonably sanitary. A better system is to bring in only the cows that are showing to calve soon, leaving the rest in a farther pasture.
On our ranch we calve in a small field that is entirely visible from the house. It has good sod, and we are careful to keep it intact so that the cows can calve on relatively clean ground. We limit the number of cows in the field by cutting in only the heavies, and cutting out the pairs as the cows calve. Most of the herd is back out on the range, and even the calving field is relatively clean. Keeping the cattle spread out minimizes stress and disease.
Today I made my second cut of heavies. The weather was mild, I was on a good horse, and my dog was at my side - cowboying at its best!
I led my horse beside the pickup to the place where I would feed them near a gate. After throwing off a line of hay, I climbed aboard my horse and headed out to bring in the main cow herd from the big field up west where they range over hundreds of acres. While the cows were eating hay, Thunder, Max, and I rode up and down the line cutting out the cows that were bagging up and getting ready to calve. We took off about a fifth of the cows and threw them into the calving field.
I was sure greatful for the fresh set of sharp shoes I'd nailed on my horse. The temperature was 50 degrees with a stiff breeze and the hillside was melting. Several of the cows slipped and fell trying to dodge past us, but my horse and I were just having fun.
The forecast is for rain turning to snow about midnight. That weather is harder on calves than cold dry snow. We have only the cows that are near calving, and it will be easy to run them into the shed last thing before bedtime. The rest of the cows and the older calves will take cover in the brush, and wait out the night.