‘It’s the biggest part of the year:’ Garfield County ranchers busy with calving season
The brown mother cow bellowed protectively underneath the half bluebird skies at Valley Farms near Silt, digging a single hoof into the turf in an intimidating display of defense. A wet, vulnerable newborn calf stood awkwardly at her side.
“Best not to test her,” Brackett Pollard said.
Her aggressive taunts came moments after rancher Pollard, 37, of Pollard Livestock slowly rumbled in his truck across the pasture — straw-like fields dotted with hundreds of more mother-son tandems munching hay before bristly mountains out in the distance.
Once he found these two, he turned the music down in the full-sized cab furnished with two child-safety seats in the back. Mama cow never took her eyes off Pollard’s truck.
“She’s probably not a bluffer,” Pollard joked. “It’s just the natural protective tendencies of the mother. A lot of times it’s more just a warning.”
It’s March, which means ranches across Garfield County are currently inundated by a critical component of the cattle industry: calving season. The seasonal birthing process helps maintain Colorado’s $3.4 billion cattle industry.
Colorado’s 2.85 million cattle makes up almost 3% of the entire U.S. headcount, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But beyond its economic makeup, calving season is a longstanding tradition of the Colorado River Valley, a heritage that also boosts the best professional bull riders in the world in Rifle High School graduate Colten Fritzlan.
In fact Pollard, a multigenerational rancher whose mother’s side of the family homesteaded near Steamboat Springs, said all his heroes growing up were just old cowmen.
“The guy who helped me get started in the business was an old World War II veteran who had shrapnel in him, but he’s just a cool 90-year-old, old guy,” He said. “And I just loved to go hang out with him and learn stuff from him.”
“I thought it’d be cool to be a cool old guy some time,” he added.
The culture is also shared by non-rancher types. Pollard said he’ll invite friends to come branding later in the year, or he’ll have local football players “come do grunt work” when they’re out grazing on national forest land.
Earlier that Wednesday, ranch manager Ryan Mitchell, 39, awoke to his morning coffee some time before the crack of dawn, 5 a.m. — the usual routine, he said. The morning perk is also accompanied by reminders of the day before.
“I wake up sore every morning, but once you get going and moving, you come out of that, ya know?” Mitchell said. “I don’t feel like I work a day in my life. I definitely love what I do.”
Then it’s time to start loading hay to feed the cows, Mitchell said. The southern Indiana native who’s ranched the past 10 years, then mounts up on his horse and takes a trip around the ranch to ensure the mothers aren’t having problems producing offspring.
He’s typically responsible for rearing an average 15 to 20 calves a day.
“This is about the biggest time we’re riding,” Mitchell said. “The cows like to get to where the ATVs can’t get to.”
From there, he’ll start tagging, an otherwise grueling process that usually involves physically wrangling a calf out in the pasture and piercing its ear using an applicator plier equipped with a razor-sharp spire. A number is applied to the tag to help account for each head.
Once tagging’s finished, Mitchell said it’s time for shots. Such vaccinations defend against disease — contagions like bovine viral diarrhea or parainfluenza.
If any of the newborns — calves eventually raised into 700 to 900 pounds hunks before going to market — die, the loss could jeopardize the entire operation.
“They say the most stressful thing on a calf’s immune system is the day it’s born,” Pollard said. “There are so many biological factors that are basically trying to kill it.”
A Colorado State University Extension official said the chances of a calf surviving its early days is about 97%. The amount of colostrum through a mother’s milk helps bolster a calf’s immunity, in particular.
In addition to overall health, hay is perhaps the number driver in profitability. The most current USDA-provided Colorado Director Hay Report market prices show $191 per ton of hay.
“The bottom line of profitability of a rancher is dependent on the total number of pounds you can raise on a given resource base,” CSU Regional Director and Interim Director of Field Operations CJ Mucklow.” Having heavier calves on a fixed base — the more that he can do that, the more profitable it is.”
At the Pollard Ranch, you’ve got cows eating anywhere between 25 to 30 pounds of hay per day.
“Yeah, hay’s expensive,” Pollard said. “It’s kind of cyclical based on the weather patterns, and last year being as dry as it was…. hay’s very seasonal in its prices. You might have $80 a ton one year and like $250 a ton the next year.”
If all goes according to plan, however, the calves will grow to a decent size and get shipped off to feedlots in November, Pollard said. Other lighter heifers might also be turned to grass on Silt Mesa before being sold.
Colorado cattle prices show anywhere from $123 to $132 for heifers between 700-800 pounds. Steers, meanwhile, go for anywhere from $135 to $167 in the same weight range.
But after all the hard work, the ever-fluctuating figures and variables affecting a rancher’s bottom line, there’s the meal at day’s end.
“It’s real good, man,” Pollard said. “The one other thing about ranching that’s definitely a plus — you get to eat good and you’re tired at the end of the day. There ain’t a whole lot of laying in bed, trying to get yourself to go to sleep.”
“You’re pretty much dog tired,” he added. “And that’s a great thing.”
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