More than once I’ve had people ask me why some ranchers breed their cows to calve in the winter. It seems pretty silly at first: why be born in weather that is quite cold, especially in South Dakota where the temperature currently sits at a balmy 2 degrees F. Don’t ask about the wind chill, I will make the fluid in your stomach freeze just thinking about it.
But what may seem like foolishness to some actually illustrates an important principle of conventional agriculture; everybody does things a little differently to match their farm or ranch’s unique situation. Winter calving is a perfect example. You see, in East River South Dakota (that’s everything in the state east of the Missouri River for you tourists) most of the land is flat. I don’t just mean kind of flat, I mean pancake on a pool table flat. You can watch your dog run away for three days in this country.
While this is great for dog watching, in the spring when the rains come it means water has nowhere to go. This creates mud that is ankle deep, that it is, if you jump in head first. Because of this, calves born in the spring have the potential to be born into a slop hole if proper prevention isn’t followed. One way some ranchers prevent this issue is to simply calve when the ground is frozen.
While this seems rough, it is important to recognize that once a calf is dry it actually does quite well in cold weather. Unlike humans, cattle can withstand bitter cold temperatures by simply eating more. Ranchers that calve in the winter take extra steps to make sure the calf is born out of the wind and that its mother gets to drying it off right away.
Another reason some calve in the winter is due to labor issues. The vast majority of East River cattlemen also farm row crops. This means spring is a busy time for planting. By moving calving to the winter, they can focus on their cattle instead of juggling cattle and crops at the same time.
We do not calve in the winter at the Geis Ranch. For one, we do very little row crop farming, so the time element isn’t an issue. The ranch is also across the river in hilly Nebraska, so mud is a minor issue for us. Therefore, spring calving works well because we have to fight the bitter cold or blizzards less frequently.
Everyone does things a little different in agriculture. Different doesn’t always mean one is better than the other, it just means that what works for one person may not work for the other. So the next time you hear about winter calving, know that it is done for a reason, and that reason is not just to prove who’s the toughest cowboy in the state.