Eagles come to town in time for calving
Cattle ranchers are now involved in what is perhaps the most rewarding and stressful time of the year – calving season.
Although it might seem as though such a large anima, averaging well over 1,000 pounds, should have a gestation period of at least more than a year, the truth is cows gestate about the same length of time as humans.
To facilitate having the calves born at the best possible time, cows are bred in late spring and early summer. This allows the birthing process to begin in February, approaching the end of winter’s coldest grip, and conclude by the end of April.
“The timing of the births is important in the calves’ ability to assimilate grass,” said long-time Valley rancher Dallas Byington. “By the time their bodies are ready to handle the grass, the hope is that the grass is ready for them.”
Byington said the emerging spring grasses also help the mothers to produce more milk for their calves.
Seeing the frolicking calves who may gather together for a morning romp or an afternoon nap, is a renewing reminder to anyone who has the fortune to drive past and witness this process which has involved humans and bovines for more than 5,000 years. Lucky observers may even see a live birth.
In concert with calving season, a species of bird that was once lost to the Carson Valley has been resurrected in a sense, to be a presence during calving time.
The bald eagle, a fish-eater first and scavenger second, comes into the Valley at calving time to feast on the highly-nutritious afterbirth which is a by-product of the reproductive process. Both bald and golden eagles participate as clean-up crews during the calving season, but it is the white-headed bald eagles who stand out in the fields.
Life-time Carson Valley rancher and bird aficionado Arnold Settelmeyer said 20 years ago, eagles didn’t appear in the Valley at calving time.
“I think I saw my first returning bald eagle about 15 years ago,” he said. “They come to eat the two-to-three pounds of afterbirth. After the turkey vultures appear, it seems like the eagles disappear.”
As a time of renewal and procreation, calving season brings promise to the ranchers. But birthing is tough when weather is unpredictable. This season has fortunately not been unusually cold, but it has been relatively wet, said both Settelmeyer and Byington.
“One of the biggest problems is the calves falling into irrigation ditches and drowning,” Settelmeyer said. “We’ve lost a few this year, but a hard freeze can really be devastating. Right now, we could use some sunshine to warm things up.”
Ranchers also contend with predators at calving time. While the eagles aren’t known to attack live calves and a single coyote isn’t generally a threat to the young bovines (although ranchers will watch carefully if they see a pack of coyotes), one of the greatest threats comes from the human population.
Wild domestic dogs can take a toll on young calves. Settelmeyer recalled one season when 10 recently weaned calves were killed by a pack of four to five dogs.
“That was devastating. It can even be one or two maverick dogs that can do a lot of damage,” he said.
During the roughly 70-day calving season, where up to a dozen births might take place each day at the height of the season, ranchers may get up several times each night to check on their herd and cows who may be ready to give birth.
Emergency deliveries occur, and a stillborn or dead calf might require the rancher to try and find another calf for the bewildered mother. Using various techniques, ranchers are often able to transfer the smell of the dead calf to that of an orphaned calf and have an adoption take place.
“It makes you feel good when you save one and then your heart breaks when one dies,” Settelmeyer said.
“I like to watch the calves, but the season is still very stressful,” Byington said. “The poor little buggers – they’re so cute.”
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