‘Miracle of life’ unfolds during calving season

By LILLY BROGGER/Montana State News

The eerie sound of bawling cows and crying coyotes fills the night sky as Buck Highberger walks through a pen of pregnant first-calf cows. The technical term for these pregnant cows is heifers. The majority of them are set to calve over the next three weeks.

Highberger is from Red Lodge and has worked various ranch jobs from New Mexico to New Zealand the majority of his life. He is accustomed to calving. He ended up with this calving job after the woman originally hired was run over by a wild heifer.

Tonight, Highberger needs to help a heifer calf. He spots the one he’s looking for, shining his flashlight on her white ear tag. The cow has been in labor since five in the evening and doesn’t look like she’ll be able to have her baby on her own. Right now, the calf’s front feet are visible, but the heifer has obviously spent herself.

It’s February in Montana, the Climbing Arrow Ranch replacement heifers are calving. These new mothers often need guidance in keeping track of their calves, some may even need help giving birth. The day crew keeps track of them during the workday and a night calver is hired to watch the heifers when the cow boss is off work.

Highberger leaves the heifer, walks into barn, and chooses a stall. He plans on pulling the calf and needs to have a place ready to put the heifer and her newborn calf. After finding a clean one, he sets the gates walks back out to get the heifer.

She stands up, startles a little, but obviously does not have the energy to run. Moving slowly, he follows and guides her to the entrance of the barn. He turned the lights off so she will feel comfortable but tonight is a full moon and three flood lights dimly light the space.

She stops for a moment, unsure of whether to go inside. She has never been in a barn and has no reason to believe she should. Reluctantly she steps inside and heads down the alleyway of the massive barn. Highberger closes the entrance and opens the wall-sized door to the pulling room. Inside, there is a head catch so the heifer can be contained.

A system of ropes and latches has been engineered so that the heifer can be caught. She will stick her head through a head catch designed for working cattle. This space is different from a regular cattle chute because there has to be room for helping the heifers calve and there is no alleyway leading to the area.

The ceiling in the room is low, and the head catch sits on a raised wooden floor. Two moveable wooden sides have latches matched with holes in the floor, allowing for adjustment.

After setting the head catch, he walks down the alleyway and around the heifer. Her nerves have picked up and she trots toward the room. She is hesitant to step inside but Highberger gives her a minute to look inside. She finally steps in and he pulls a string to latch the head catch. She pulls back and struggles some, feeling claustrophobic in the unnatural situation.

“Let’s let her settle for a while,” says Highberger.

Closing the door to the room, Highberger heads to his truck to grab a dirty pair of jeans. He then heads to the camper that has been set-up as an office to change. Inside, sixties colored orange curtains hang over the windows, adorned with oriental looking red fringe around the edges.

A notebook lies on the table listing the eartag number of each heifer that has calved, the date, the sex of her calf, where she was put after calving and occasional notes like “hard pull,” or “didn’t want to take calf.”

A fresh pot of coffee sits on the counter and a jumbo sized tub of Red Vines sits on the table. Having changed, Highberger heads back out through the dark to help the heifer calve. She has calmed down but the calf’s front feet are still the only thing showing. She is small for her age and simply doesn’t have the strength to have her calf. If left alone, she likely would die in labor.

Highberger heads to what used to be the office to grab plastic gloves, pulling chains, and hooks. On the mint green door into the room, “Green Room” has been painted.

Inside, page-size photos of Sports Illustrated’s yearly bikini model have been ripped out and tacked on the wall. Random doodles from previous night calvers hang above the dust covered, torn up couch that used to serve as the napping area.

Mouse feces covers the floor completing a space that would likely give a health inspector an immediate heart attack. The room has since been allocated for storing supplies, having been replaced by the much cleaner camper or as Highberger calls it, ‘the tin tipi.” The 2016 Sport’s Illustrated bikini model of the year even migrated to the camper.

Supplies in hand, Highberger heads to the pulling room. He puts on the arm length plastic gloves, puts some lubricating powder on his hands, and follows the calf’s exposed leg into the cow, hoping to find the calf’s head and nose.

He says it’s still alive, and finds what would be the calf’s front “ankles.” He has one long, fairly light chain with larger metal loops on each end. He creates a loop with one end of the chain and places it above one of the ankles. He does the same on the other end. He then puts a triangular shaped hook on each side, made for his hands.

Highberger then begins to pull on the calf. Timing his pulling with the heifer’s contractions, the calf’s nose becomes visible. The heifer seems to know that she’s being helped and begins regularly pushing herself. Still, only the calf’s nose sticks out.

Having made little progress, Highberger begins to pull harder until the calf’s head finally comes out. He clears the birth sack from the calf’s nose and it begins to breath. The heifer seems completely spent, but the calf’s likely wide hips still have to pass before she is done. With one more pull, the calf comes crashing out, Highberger ends up sitting on the floor, and the heifer sighs in relief.

Amniotic fluid and blood cover the wooden floor. The calf is wet and slimy, shaking its floppy ears and taking its first solo breaths. Highberger puts a small squirt of iodine in the calf’s nose to get it to cough up any remaining fluid from its lungs.

The bull calf looks to be around 80 pounds. After a moment to gather things, Highberger releases the head catch and the heifer turns around to find her newborn calf. He decides to leave them in the room for a while to become acquainted.

A few minutes later, Highberger puts the new calf in a sled and drags it down to a clean stall, followed by the heifer. He closes them in the stall together where they will stay until morning. Each new pair will stay in the barn until the calf has eaten and the mother seems to savvy her new job.

“The heifers are having their first calf and they don’t necessarily know how to raise a calf yet,” says Highberger. “You have to show them how to be a mom.”

He says they will have a lot of instinct but may not know how to channel it. Some will take right to being a mom and others take time to figure things out.

“The first one can have complications if the calf is not coming out correctly,” Highberger continued. “My job as the night calver is to take care of that.”

He found the job through what he calls the “cowboy version of the moccasin telegraph.” In other terms, by word of mouth.

“It’s something to do. I don’t have to deal with the crew, it’s just me and my heifers. I have everything I need to do my job,” says Highberger.

When ask about why ranchers put so much time and effort into calving season, Highberger says it sets the ranch up for the rest of the year.

“You can only sell as many calves as you raise,” says Highberger. “If you have a bad calving season and end up losing cows and losing calves that’s out of your bottom line.”

Highberger has had a fairly laid back calving season. Ty Rose on the other hand has not. His calving season has been extremely busy. Rose’s girlfriend Morgan Kuntz sees the stress that this time of year causes on Rose. She lives 30 miles from him but spends weekends helping and on weekdays, regularly takes him meals and does his laundry.

Kuntz was raised on a ranch and is familiar with the demands of calving season. She says that having to be attentive while dealing with sleep deprivation is hard and there is the responsibility of caring for animals.

“It’s the miracle of life,” says Kuntz. “Keeping another animal alive is a lot of pressure.”

Calving season is arguably the most important part of the year for ranchers and takes a community of people to pull off. The weather this season has been incredibly favorable for the early calvers, but cows in the Gallatin Valley will be calving up through May.

– Edited by Sara Saxton

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