Friday, February 16, 2018

Montana Calving System

            A lot has been written in the last few years about the “Sandhills Method” of calving.  This involves moving the “heavies” from one field to another while leaving behind the newly-calved pairs.  In the Sandhills of Nebraska this is an effective way to affect spreading the accumulation of mud, manure, and hay-waste over a broader area, and leaving the new calves on relatively clean ground.
            Conditions are different in Montana.  The winter is longer and colder, and the summer is shorter.  The calves must be born early enough in the year to take advantage of the grass that grows, essentially, for only the first two months of summer – June and July.
            Thus, calving becomes an intense operation at a time of the year when weather is a major factor.  Although I have calved thousands of head out on the prairie, I’ve never been on a place that didn’t have a calving shed.  With Montana weather, one simply must have a place to get the occasional problem pair in out of the snow, cold, wind, or rain.  And thus, every ranch has a “calving field” that is handy to shelter.
            Especially in these days of four-wheelers and side-by-sides, those calving fields are usually small.  They are often plagued by mud and manure - which leads to stress on the cows, and wet hair-coats and exposure to disease for the calves.  Scours in the calves is often the result.
            It was 45 years ago that I was introduced to the “Montana Method” of calving: the “heavy” cows are cut from the “outside” bunch and pushed into the calving field.  The pairs are cut out every few days into a “near” field that is clean and fresh.  As these “near pairs” get a little older and become able to travel, they are sorted out into the “far pairs” field, where they generally remain until branding.
            So rather than rotating the “heavy” bunch through a series of pastures as in the “Sandhills System”, the Montana system rotates the heavies into the one calving field, and the pairs out into fields sequentially further away from the headquarters.
            You may think that sorting heavies in, and pairs out, might consume a lot of time.  The advantage is that you always have a smaller bunch of cows in a smaller field that is easier to watch and closer to facilities – an important strategy in a climate that might well bring sub-zero temps and/or snow in a matter of hours.  With fewer cows in the calving field you can even put them all in the shed when it is storming.
            And the sorting is just plain fun when done ahorseback.
            Once or twice a week we feed the outside bunch some 40 yards from the gate.  We ride up and down the feedline picking out the heavies and starting them toward the gate.  Our horses know the game, and very quickly take over the operation once we have identified to them which cow we want out.
            And a few times a week we ride into the calving field to cut out the pairs.  This is a job we can do on a relaxed and sunny afternoon, and is a job that is just right for training a green horse.
            The result is a much smaller band of heavies, among which it is much easier to spot trouble, and from which it is much easier to cut out a cow to take into the shed.
            The “near pair” bunch is smaller, and easier to monitor, still close enough to the shed if trouble is spotted.  The “far pair” bunch is old enough to spread out over bigger country where disease is less likely to be transmitted.

Some day I hope to make it to New Mexico – and learn the “Southwest Calving System”.

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