It’s dark, cold and 4:30 in the morning. John Marroney is driving his pickup truck to see if any of his cows need help giving birth to their calves.
At 8:30 a.m., Bob Watkins is balancing on the back of a lurching hay wagon to throw a ton of breakfast to his 225 cows.
Later that afternoon, the Yocam brothers are fighting a losing battle to prevent a four-wheel-drive pickup and a front-end loader from getting stuck in the mud while they check and feed their 600 cattle.
It’s tough work – dirty, cold and unending. The next day they will have to do it all over again.
Welcome to the life of a Southeastern Colorado rancher this winter. Never an easy time for ranchers, winter has been particularly tough this year. They have endured blizzards, more blizzards, high feed bills, paying to bulldoze roads to their snowbound cattle, coping with snow that won’t melt and then mud when it finally does.
‘”Just the equipment and extra feed, you know you’re going to lose money,” Dale Yocam said about his financial prospects this year. “And with the death loss . . .”
This is calving season for most of the region’s ranchers and the late December-early January blizzards that struck Colorado’s Eastern Plains are making it expensive this year. Ranchers make their money for the year by selling calves that cost a few hundred dollars to feed and grow for as much as $500 or $600 in the fall.
But this year, many ranchers have fewer calves, fewer cows to produce them next year and much higher overhead to eat up what they’ll make at the fall auctions.
Marroney said he’s been lucky this winter. After the first blizzard struck, he moved his 100 or so cows to a pasture a short distance from his house in Kim. The pasture had a shed for the cattle and he had hay stockpiled at his house.
Since he also owns some earth-moving equipment, Marroney pushed the existing snow into large windbreaks around the shed, and then crossed his fingers when the second blizzard struck.
Still, he lost calves to the weather then and lost more later because they were too weak to survive another cold spell.
Last weekend, the Kim area was hit by yet another snowstorm, accompanied by fast, cold winds. That killed three more calves, Marroney said.
“They couldn’t get warmed up or dried off,” he said.
“I’ve had cows have (healthy) calves at 20 below zero,” he said. Calves are fine “if there’s no wind. It’s the wind that gets them. They can’t get warm.”
Marroney’s cows should be done calving by mid-March, he said.
Until then, he checks them a few times a day, including at 4:30 in the morning.
It’s a good thing he does. One of his cows had a calf backward inside her the day before, he said, and it might have died if he hadn’t been able to help.
Bob Watkins, who ranches east of Kim, only has to watch his cows right now. His calves are scheduled to come in April and May, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of the blizzard woods.
His cows were pregnant during the blizzards and had to go without food or water for a while, too. Cattle can abort their fetuses when they’re stressed, he said, or reabsorb them in order to protect the mother’s health.
Watkins has more immediate problems, though, namely his growing feed bill and the snow and mud he has to hurdle each day to get the feed to the cows.
Watkins has begun using a wagon and two-horse team to take feed to the cattle. “Horses don’t get stuck in the mud,” he said.
The wagon can get stuck in the snow, a fact Watkins and his wife, Tina, discovered just last week. But at least they could unhitch the horses, walk them back to the barn and come back with a tractor to pull the wagon out.
So it’s a daily job, just trying to pull hay down county roads.
With 450 mother cows, Gene and Dale Yocam have paid severely during the blizzards and their aftermath.
They lost seven or eight cows “that we found,” Dale Yocam said, and still have a few cows missing.
The blizzards have killed at least 50 of their calves, the brothers said, many of them from a group of heifers they bought last year.
The heifers, who hadn’t had calves before, started giving birth Jan. 1, during the worst of the blizzards.
Gene Yocam brought the calves inside to warm them up after they were born, but “half of them wouldn’t ever get up,” his brother said.
“I’m real glad we bought those,” Dale Yocam said dryly. “I was telling my cousin, we should have stayed in the bar that day instead.”
The brothers are about one-third of the way through the calving season for their regular birthing cows.
More of the calves being born now are surviving, the Yocams said, but all of the calves are more susceptible to getting sick because they and their mothers have been weakened by the weather.
Still, cows can be pretty tough. Gene Yocam said one group of cows was found 20 days after the New Year’s weekend blizzard, still alive even though they hadn’t had anything to eat.
The Yocams’ father found two bulls alive in a creek bed just last week, Gene Yocam said. The bulls ate some hay, and then left again to go back out in the open country.
The land around the Yocams’ ranches is still partially covered with snow, dense wet stuff that’s still a foot thick.
Cattle don’t know how to paw through the snow for grass, Dale Yocam said, so the brothers have had to haul hay to the cattle in several locations, which is troublesome and expensive.
The cattle did eat some of the Cholla cactus that sticks up through the snow, he said. And they learned to eat the snow for water, which neither of the brothers expected.
“Some of them still don’t go to water yet,” Dale said.
On a recent day, before they started dragging a pickup with two tons of hay on it through the mud to a feeding spot, the brothers check on the early birthing heifers to make sure everything’s all right.
When they arrive, the Yocams find a calf that is maybe 30 minutes old, still wet from being born and shivering in the relatively balmy 40-degree sun.
The calf’s mother is licking it to dry the calf, but the newborn isn’t trying very hard to stand up. The Yocams say calves must stand up and start nursing to survive. Their mother’s milk will warm them and give them the energy and antibodies to stay alive the next few weeks.
Gene Yocam picks up the calf, holding it for a while and helping it get its legs under it. The calf doesn’t seem very interested, but it’s cold and eventually figures out it needs some milk.
That’s where the frustrations of first-calf heifers pop up, because the mother cow kicks the calf away when it tries to nurse.
“No, don’t do that,” Dale Yocam said to the cow. “He’s supposed to be there. They’re dumber than. . .”
Then the calf starts to follow the wrong mother cow, and the incorrect mother just lets it follow her. That isn’t right either because calves need to bond with their real mothers so the mother will take care of them, Dale Yocam said.
Eventually, the newborn calf figures it out and when the Yocams come back from feeding, it’s doing fine.
But along the muddy trail to the feeding area is the body of another calf that didn’t make it. Dale Yocam said he recognizes it from the previous day when it seemed a little weak. He thinks it may have been trampled by congregating cattle after a large hay bale didn’t get spread out like it should.
The body will probably go on the pile of calves and cows the Yocams are accumulating this year – a monetary loss and a little sad, too.
“I feel so sorry for them the last two months,” Dale Yocam said. ‘”They are cute. I just like the little guys.”
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