Bad weather? Work is not canceled on a ranch!
This morning, I headed out early to take care of 100 new calves delivered to our barnyard pen. Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day, and we set up the pen to have fresh water in tubs on one side, clean hay in feeders around the pen and feed bunks ready to fill and teach the calves to come to the bunks to eat. The calves were happy and clean and drinking and eating right away.
Today is a totally different story. I woke to soft drizzle, overcast skies and cold temperatures. In short, it is the kind of day I'd rather just snuggle back into a blanket and read a book. But those calves needed me! So I drug myself out of bed, dressed in long underwear beneath my jeans, pulled on a couple of hooded sweatshirts (hoodies, my kids tell me they are called) and then found my knee-high mud boots. The calves needed their water refilled, feed bunks filled and, while I walked through them looking for sickness or even discomfort, I decided to roll out some warm, clean straw for bedding. They do have access to a barn where they can get in out of the rain, but calves are often more comfortable outside. The barn had a few in it, but when I arrived and started walking through them, they curiously came out and started following me around the pen.
One of the most important jobs of raising a set of calves is training them to accept humans. Often people comment on how tame my cattle are. That is important to me. If they are comfortable around people, they are easier to work with, check for sickness, and safer all around. So during the first few days that I have them in our barnyard, I take time each day to stand in the midst of them, let them sneak up to me, lick my jeans or boots, and generally get comfortable with me. I liken a pen of calves to a group of grade-schoolers daring each other to get close to a new kid or something to play with. They follow the boldest individual in walking right up to it then, stopping just a few feet away, reach out to try to touch it. They often seem afraid, but dare each other to get closer! Eventually one calf will end up jumping as I reach to scratch my nose or shift my position for some reason and they will all bolt away a few feet.
This job is called imprinting--it is this first experience with people that these calves will remember. I want them to see me as no threat, and as the source of pleasure for them. Imprinting takes a lot of time out of my day for nearly a week. Most days, I enjoy the job, but today it is nearly miserable weather and I can only think that I'd rather be inside. But I do it anyway. So this morning, as the water tank filled, I sat on the edge of the feed bunk as calves started to creep closer from all sides. Soon I felt one licking the back of my sweatshirt...pulling on my hood with its long, rough tongue. I shifted slightly and the calves in front of me jumped back a foot or two, but the one behind me didn't stop licking! Soon calves all around me were close enough to touch again, but I sat frozen and let them reach out. They either sniffed me with wide nostrils or stuck out their tongues to taste my jeans or sweatshirt. Then, suddenly, the calf behind me pulled off my hood and I instictively reached up quickly to put it back on my head in the rain...all the calves bolted away and watched me warily from a distance of 10 feet! This game of red light-green light continued until the water tank was filled and I moved on to the next chore that needed doing.
The rain has continued all day long, and each time I return to the pen with the new calves, I take the time to talk to them and let them get to know me despite the weather. This weather makes me realize that it is fall and winter is just around the corner. We have worked hard all summer to stockpile hay to feed the cows when the grass runs out of nutrients in the cold weather. We also have straw for bedding in stacks, wind breaks built to shelter cows and newborn calves and the tractors are serviced so they will continue to be our most important tool in the job of feeding cattle in the winter.
I've heard stories of dairy producers who feed the cattle first on Christmas Day before their kids can open any presents, of cattle ranchers who spend entire nights out with heifers calving in ice storms to save calves who would otherwise freeze to death, and even cowboys who put calves in their bathtub to warm them up. None of these are uncommon stories to farmers and ranchers. We do not like the cold weather any more than any others, but we have a responsibility to the livestock we care for to provide for them. We are dedicated to them. I CHOSE this line of work. I chose to do what my parents and grandparents did and raise cattle. I do not love the cold, wet days, but I do love the way of life and the responsibility I have to care for these creatures in the best way I can. I am blessed to be a cattle rancher, but I do wish winter weren't right around the corner!