April 16, 2021

Montana ranchers switch to later calving

PARADISE VALLEY, Mont. (AP) — One recent afternoon, three generations of the Andersen family climbed onto four-wheelers and a mini-pickup and motored into a field to check on this year’s calves.

Debbie Andersen, who grew up here on the family ranch along McDonald Creek in Paradise Valley, drove her four-wheeler through scattered clumps of snow as a group of cows and their new calves milled about in the unseasonably warm sun.

Her husband, Jerry Andersen, made his way toward another group of cattle gathered across the field as their son, Kyle, and Kyle’s oldest daughter, Daisy, 3, returned from a short walk after finding a deer antler.

The Andersens are like many Park County ranchers who are working through the annual calving season, which typically wraps up in late March or in early April, the Livingston Enterprise reported.

On March 16, Andersen said about a dozen pregnant beef cattle remained on the ranch, where the family operates a dairy farm in addition to raising beef cattle.

Personal preference largely dictates when ranchers choose to put calves on the ground. For a number of reasons, the Andersen family long ago settled on late January to begin calving, yet other ranchers shoot for calving in March or April, or later.

“There are some people that have even moved it back to May and June, but for us it’s worked good, so we’re going to stick to what we use,” Debbie said of calving in January.

The family, which operates the Skattum-Andersen Ranch on McDonald Creek, puts out copious amounts of straw and huts for the cows to keep warm during cold winter days.

Debbie, whose parents also live at the ranch, said the goal is to start calving before the spring thaw when she said calves can be susceptible to infection and pneumonia.

Josh Bilbao, agriculture extension agent with the Montana State University-Park County Extension Office in Livingston, said a late winter or spring calving season is typical for Park County ranchers, with a handful starting in late January. Breeding is usually done in June or July each year to coincide with a late winter or spring calving season, Bilbao said.

“Most are going by the time mid-February rolls around,” Bilbao said.

Market availability is also tied to when ranchers choose to begin calving, with spring calves typically selling in the fall and usually around October, he said.

“Market and weather patterns play a factor into why spring calving is the dominant use around here,” Bilbao said.

Most of the cattle born this year in Park County are sold to buyers in the Midwest and shipped to feed lots in Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas — although some cattle remain in the area, he said.

Aside from a stretch of sub-zero weather in February, Bilbao said Park County ranchers have enjoyed a relatively mild winter for calving.

“Calving’s been pretty easy on folks so far,” he said, adding that most area ranchers calve in February to mid-March.

“A lot of guys are getting close to wrapping it up at this point,” Bilbao said. “But there’s always stragglers, too, that take their time and get into April.”

Ken Morris, who serves on the board of directors of the Montana Cattleman’s Association, said many ranchers are opting for calving in March or even early April.

Morris has been in the business for about 40 years and ranches on the Rocky Mountain Front between Choteau and Augusta. He said cold temperatures in recent years are behind the decision for some ranchers to switch to a later calving season.

“I’ve always calved in February and needed to get calving out of the road before I do my farm work,” Morris said.

Modern technology has helped Morris during the calving season in recent years. Morris said he outfitted his ranching operation with cameras and security lights in his calving lots and sheds.

That allows him to keep an eye on his calves by watching monitors from the warmth of his home, but added that he still makes routine in-person checks on the animals.

“We’ve saved a lot of calves with those cameras,” he said.

Morris also pointed out that nothing’s certain when it comes to ranching and Mother Nature.

Just last year, Morris said ranchers in his area experienced a significant storm that began on March 13. He’s also witnessed April snowstorms that were difficult on young calves. He’s also experienced 70% humidity during temperatures that dipped some 20 degrees below zero, making it difficult to get calves dried off.

Clyde Park-area rancher Bill Sarrazin, who is Debbie Andersen’s cousin, said that when he began in the business in 1974 most area ranchers calved in February.

“That was just when everybody calved was in February,” Sarrazin said. “I would say over the last four or five years there’s been a lot of people move from February to March. Some that had calved in March for years even moved to April.”

Sarrazin said a neighbor suggested he try calving in May because “you can go out there in your tennis shoes and shorts and check them.” Still, Sarrazin said he plans to stick with his March calving routine.

“The first of May is a little too late for me,” he said.

Not many of Sarrazin’s neighbors are still calving in February. While some choose to calve earlier in an effort to send heavier animals to market, Sarrazin believes calves born later in March or April also benefit from not experiencing the stress of being born during colder months.

“It all evens out,” he said.