Several Days in February

D. E. Larsen, DVM

I looked for a spot in the trunk for my bag. There were six of us stuffed into the sedan for our trip to Nebraska. My bet was, I was the only one who had been in the military. You didn’t need to bring your entire wardrobe for a one week trip. 

We were going out to spend a week helping a progeny test herd of 600 heifers during the calving season. The herd belonged to Diamond Labs. They were collecting ease of calving data on their bulls to be used for their semen marketing. Six of us would drive out on this Sunday morning, and the 6 guys out there would take the car and drive home. Diamond Labs had a house on the place for us, and we took meals in a restaurant/bar in the small village near the ranch.

The drive out of Fort Collins was away from the mountains and out across the prairie. It was a four-hour drive across some for the flattest land in this country. I settled into a corner of the back seat and tried to catch a couple of hours of sleep.

“Larsen, how can you sleep when we are driving through some scenic country?” Mike said.

“One thing you learn in the Army is to sleep anywhere,” I said. “You go up on the mountains out of Fort Collins, Mike, and you can watch the riverboats on the Mississippi River.”

“That can’t be right,” Mike said. “That can’t be right, can it, Jim?”

“He is toying with you, Mike,” Jim said. “He doesn’t have much to say about this flat country.”

It was going to be a cold week. Daily high temperatures were 20 below zero. Overnight lows were pushing 40 below. This will be a great learning experience, but we will pay for it by enduring some harsh temperatures.

The group that was going home was glad to see us pull up to the little house. The housekeeper was just finishing up getting the place ready for the new crew. We discussed instructions as briefly as possible, and they were off. The ranch foreman came over to make sure we were settled into the house.

“Here are the directions to the restaurant where you take your meals,” the Foreman said. “It is time for you all to go get lunch. You can take the old crew cab pickup. When you get back, you need to decide on your groups of two. The herd needs to be checked every 2 hours. You pull any heifer who was in labor on your last drive trough. Bring them into the barn, diagnose the problem, and take care of it. That means you pull the calf, do a C-Section, or do a fetotomy, Whatever is indicated.” I will be around in the morning. You go for breakfast at 7:00, Shift change is at 8:00 AM, 4:00 PM, and Midnight.”

Using my military experience again, my first priority was picking out my bunk. When the others realized what I was doing, there was a mad rush to stake their claims.

The restaurant was in what one would have to stretch to call it a town. It was more like a congested area with maybe a dozen buildings. But the food was good, and they appreciated the business that the ranch was giving them.

“Look at that picture on the wall,” I said to Jim as we were setting down. It was a poster of W. C. Fields with one of his quotes.

“During one of my treks through Afghanistan, we lost our corkscrew. We were compelled to live on food and water for several days,” W. C. Fields.

“Bob and I are going to take the first shift,” Mike said. That will mean we will have a short shift today.”

“A short shift today, but also a short shift next Sunday before we leave,” I said. “It all catches up with you sooner or later.”

“Dave and I will take the midnight shift,” Jim said. “That will be the coldest, but also probably the quietest.”

“I guess that leaves the 4:00 to midnight shift to Bill and me,” John said as we finished lunch. “I guess we better get back so Mike can go to work.”

Midnight came sooner than I thought. John was up waking us up about 11:30.

“You guys get dressed, and we will have time to go over our notes,” John said. “Make sure you put on your long johns, it is just damn cold out there tonight, and that little heater in the pasture truck doesn’t keep up.”

“Make sure you check the corners of the pastures,” John said. “There is a heifer in labor in the corner by the creek. If she doesn’t have a calf, you should bring her in for help. We didn’t have any deliveries to help. Maybe you will get lucky.”

The pasture truck we had to check the herd with was an old Army ¾ ton. It had a canvas top and probably no insulation anywhere. With a light wind blowing, the 30 below temperature was brutal. The heater in the truck seemed to take forever to warm up and then blowing full blast, it failed to keep the ice from forming on the inside of the canvas top.

“There is the heifer John was talking about,” Jim said as he turned the truck so the headlights would fall on her. “We get lucky on this trip. She already has a calf.”

“How do these calves survive in these temperatures?” I asked, thinking that Jim would have some experience with this cold since he was from Wyoming.

“Some don’t, and a lot of them lose the tips of their ears,” Jim said. “I guess it takes a good momma cow to get them dried off and up nursing.”

Most of the herd was in a hollow in the middle of this ten-acre pasture. Grouping up kept everyone a little warmer, and the hollow provided some protection from the wind.

“Looks like we get to drink some coffee,” I said. “Not seeing any heifer in labor on this trip means we don’t have any work to do on the next trip.”

“I think you spoke too soon,” Jim said as the headlights caught the eyes of a heifer in the far corner of the pasture. He pulled the truck closer.

“It looks like we should watch her a few minutes,” I said.

The heifer was straining hard, and just the tips of the toes were visible at her vulva. Her straining did not let up as we watched, and there was no progress in the fetus’s position.

“What do you think?” I said. “I don’t think we want to leave her for another two hours with that straining.”

“I agree,” said Jim. “She would have to be in the farthest corner from the barn.”

We both got out and got her on her feet and headed for the barn. She seemed to know that it would be warmer there.

“You keep her going,” Jim said. “I will go and make sure we are set up in the barn, then I will come back and follow you with some lights.”

It was a long slow walk to the barn, and while I was expecting some warmth when we got there, I was disappointed.

“Why do suppose people would settle in this part of the country?” I asked Jim. 

“This is great cattle country,” Jim said.

“My bet is, they had a broken wheel on their wagon and couldn’ go any further,” I said.

We got the heifer in the chute and started the propane heater. The heater was going full blast, and you could hardly feel it.

I tied the tail out of the way, and Jim washed her up and did a vaginal exam.

“I think we can pull this one with no problem,” Jim said. “It might be a tight fit, but I think it will come. You might want to check her.”

I washed up, the water was warm, but my wet hands and arm were instantly freezing. The only warmth was inside the heifer. 

We hooked up the calf puller and haltered the heifer so we could release her head from the chute in case she went down during the delivery. It was a hard pull, but the calf was fine when it hit the ground. We move them into a holding pen for the night.

“This guy is a lucky one,” I said. “He gets to spend the night in a warm barn.”

We set up the chute so it would be ready for the next cow. I noticed the water on the ground from where we worked on the heifer was frozen solid.

The thermometer continued to dive as the night grew long. On our third trip through the herd, it was 40 below. One quit trying to stay warm, you just tried to keep from getting frostbite.

Jim noticed the heifer in the corner by the creek.

“We better check that one,” Jim said.

Blowing in my hands and reflecting my breath onto my face, trying to keep some feeling in my cheeks, I looked up and noticed this was the heifer that had calved earlier.

“No, she has been there for several days,” I said.

“Several days!” Jim remarked. “This is our first night.”

This is going to be a long week.

Photo by Chris F from Pexels

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

3 thoughts on “Several Days in February

  1. Making the management decision to purposely have cattle calve in severe winter conditions was a terrible trend, one whole-heartedly supported by our Land Grant colleges. The economic analysis is pretty simple. Beyond that, calves that have no ears or tails due to frostbite make great fodder for the animal rights folks. I like your story and I have some similar memories, but I shudder to think of going back to this sort of “life style”.

    Liked by 2 people

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