Thursday, February 27, 2014

Ain't She Sweet ... Calving in Harding County, South Dakota

Flipping through the Nation's Center News ... reporting from Buffalo in Harding County, South Dakota ... an advertisement urged me to
Get Ready for Calving!

My response was near panic ... because in no way, shape, or form was I ready. Here I thought the prairie had been bred out of my family blood in the 85 years since Govert Van der Boom left his Govert, South Dakota, homestead. Maybe not.

I was surprised by my reaction. A big New York advertising firm would invest a billion dollars to provoke such a visceral reaction. Maybe more. Buffalo Hardware and Lumber knows New York style advertising is not necessary. Harding County ranchers would consider flashy advertising a waste of time, and a waste of good money. Norman Negaard, the owner, published this ad to encourage ranchers to buy their calving supplies locally. If Mr. Negaard was trying to create an effect, he may have gotten more than he expected when I inadvertently sucked in my breath, while both dread and excitement filled my gut.

What is going on here? I've never calved a night in my life. That's right ... night ... as in after the sun goes down and you can't see your finger in front of your nose, let alone the business end of a cow in labor. For those even more uninitiated than I am ... cows are not particularly considerate of their rancher's sleep. A Harding County rancher responds day and night for as many days and nights as it takes. Hardware Hank tells it like it is: spotlights, flashlights, lanterns, gloves, alarm clocks, feeder buckets and bottles. Oh my.

Your Harding County rancher was out mucking around during the coldest, the muddiest, the orneriest nights of the year to put that hamburger on your bun. The weather this time of year is unpredictable in the details, but overall the effect is cold and more cold. In February 2011 Myrna Giannonatti and Dean Wagner, who ranch up past Reva, were calving in double digits below zero, with the snow at 20 inches. Some years they see enough sunshine during the day to add mud to their freezing nights.

Myrna and Dean have, on occasion, invited me to pay a visit during calving and assume night watch at their ranch so they might finally get a full night's sleep. Could they be sincere? Would you trust me with your calves? I didn't think so. I have no illusions. I'm a town-girl and I will never know as much as a rancher knows even if a digital chip could be implanted in my brain. Come to think of it, from a rancher's perspective, turning over the night watch to me might have some entertainment value, as a rancher could be confident even cows know more than I do, and could well defend themselves against my ineptitude. I'm not sure what I would do when I saw that first small hoof appear from the birth canal. I might pray for reliable cell phone reception so I could wake up Myrna and Dean.

Artificial insemination has shortened the season of sleepless nights. But, even if a rancher has all the cows inseminated the same day, a cow can calve anywhere from 14 days before to 14 days after the gestation date, so yawning family members are still looking at 28 days of sleep deprivation, give or take. Add some ultrasound technology and calving can be more focused. Still, no shirking permitted here, those mama cows have to be checked every two hours, day and night. And what about Bessie who wants to go off and have her babies out of the limelight of the calving barn. Try finding her. Bessie? Bessie? Where are you Bessie?

I'm not inclined to ask anyone wearing a shoulder-length rubber glove the question you may be asking now: Why? If you think about it, you know why, and I don't want to appear disrespectful by asking this question of those who are the sworn guardians of their herds ... when, in fact, I respect them greatly. Simply put, on a ranch you do what needs doing, you do it because you want to. A rancher doesn't see calving as a bad deal, irrespective of the cold, the sucking muddy ground, the sleepless nights. Tell me if I'm wrong.

In the big picture, when you take on the commitment of ranching, calving becomes part of the annual ranch cycle. Part of the rhythm, part of the ranch culture, the lifestyle. Ranching is not something you do on weekends or between business deals; ranching is a life commitment. So what if you lose some sleep, wouldn't be the first time sleep was forfeit when ranching is your livelihood. If you don't put food on a table in the city, you don't put food on the table in the ranch house, or school shoes on your children's feet. These ranchers are people who appreciate the value of hard work and physical labor. They also appreciate the value of a community of ranchers with the same experiences. Shared experiences does create community ... I could only wish to be the spider on the wall at Buffalo Hardware and Lumber and overhear some of those ranching stories.

In the smaller picture ... or maybe this really is the bigger picture ... calving is part of the cycle of life. Who could deny the satisfaction of being so close ... rubber glove close ... to the advent of new life. Considering the ranch calf is not a pet, good ranching practice would be to deny attachment beyond regard, but a baby of any kind is a miracle. Miracles enrich the beholder, so no rancher can escape the magic of the initial sharing of life. Maybe within that capsule of time, a rancher is allowed to suppress the food chain image that later discourages attachments. Attachments do happen. Myrna wouldn't be the first rancher to name a bum calf or a handicapped calf and ladle on her special kind of attention.

As long as we are considering the big picture and the little picture, let's look at the really big picture. In theory at least, everyone contributes equally to an orderly society, the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. Maybe a Harding County rancher contributes a little bit more. You can do without jeans with a designer label ... heaven knows, a Harding County rancher wouldn't be seen in them ... but can you do without hamburger, or a post roast, or one of Myrna's good thick steaks?

Maybe your association with ranching is somehow limited to that non-committal space between the plastic wrap and rigid foam tray on the meat counter of your grocery store. Make no mistake about it, calving is up close and personal. If you think you have the fortitude, go to YouTube and search "calving a cow". You'll discover video cameras may have become a fixture in the calving barn. Then, when you are able to once again blink your eyes, remember that calving is just one step of the life cycle, one step in the annual ranch cycle, one month, give or take, of twelve. Feeding America is no simple task. 

The more that remains in me of the prairie, the better. My grandfather, Govert Van der Boom, looked forward to a nice roast, and maybe he passed that on to me, too.

Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate

[Written with gratitude to Norman Negaard of Buffalo Hardware & Lumber in Buffalo, SD, for allowing me to re-print his advertisement, and to Myrna Giannonatti and Dean Wagner for indulging my curiosity about ranch operations.]


  1. Sweetheart,

    Thanks for an absolutely wonderful blog posting this week!

    I am again amazed at your skills as a writer, researcher, historian, educator, and creative and talented storyteller. Your content this week is extremely interesting and informative…especially for a Southern California-bred suburban city-boy, who has no conception whatsoever of “the business end of a cow in labor”! Sleepless nights, shoulder-length rubber gloves, flashlights, feeder buckets and bottles, mud, snow, and bitterly freezing cold…wow…I can’t really even imagine it, much less conceive of actually having to experience it!

    You’ve given us a vivid, yet honest and respectful, portrayal of one aspect of the present-day life of a Harding County rancher...the calving process…and you’ve placed it in the context of the “big picture” of what ranching, life cycles, and food production are all about. And, as a truly good blogger can do, you’ve done so in an entertaining, amusing, and personal way…you good-naturedly, and in a warmly human and candid manner, write about yourself in this week’s blog posting, and reference such things as your “panic,” your “visceral reaction,” your being “uninitiated,” and your “ineptitude” when it comes to the calving experience…adjectives that I suspect apply to virtually all of us!

    Despite what you seem to be saying about yourself, I think you still have lots of “the prairie” in you, and you’ve nicely flavored your blog posting with it this week. It’s another fascinating read for us “Thru Prairie Grass” blog watchers. Thanks.

  2. Kate,

    Once again I enjoyed your post. I recall calving at my grandparents ranch outside of Craig, Colorado in the early 1950's. This was before my uncles had any of those fancy long rubber gloves. Back then as you pointed out, it was not all that unusual for a calf to be born in the early part of January. I remember my uncles heading out to the barn in the early morning hours and coming back into the house with newborn calves that had to be warmed up by the coal stove. I also have vivid memories of watching calves being born. Luckily I never had to assist.

    True the timing of the birth of calves has changed over the years. However, as you also pointed out calves still come early when the weather is bitter cold. A lawyer friend of mine, who also raises cattle, not long ago lost a calf during one of those bitter spring storms. He still regrets not putting the newborn calf into a bathtub of warm water. His wife had just remodeled their bathroom and he did not want to have the calf scratch her new bathtub. Of course, at the time he did not know the calf would not survive.

    My friend was sorry he choose the bathtub over the life of his calf. Such is life. In retrospect not many of us always makes the right choose. We all just do the best we can.


    1. Wonderful memories, Sharon! How long have I known you without learning the extent of your ranching experience?



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