Winter calving, Shields Valley, MT

By Nate Howard
Enterprise Staff Writer

Sunday was forecast for another below-zero night, and Andrea and Joe Sarrazin raced the sunset to pack the “heavy” cows — those that appear ready to calve — and the youngest cow-calf pairs inside barns where the cows’ body heat would provide warmth to help them through the night. 

An unseasonably cold spell that included the coldest February on record in Livingston and 48.2 inches of snow since Feb. 1 have made this calving season more laborious. 

“It’s been hard,” said Andrea, who works the ranch full time, adding this winter has been “intensely cold” and deep in snow. “It’s usually one or the other, but this year has been both.” 

The harsh winter means a loss of more than the usual number of calves, Andrea said.

Joe, who was born on the ranch along Tobin Creek in the west foothills of the Crazy Mountains, said he “just knows from experience” which cows are about to calve — their tails are cocked, they often smell the ground and they take on a “granny cow” approach, showing concern for other newborn calves.

Joe and Andrea’s son, Tyler Sarrazin, mentioned a cow’s vulva swells, too. 

As the sun sets Sunday evening, a newborn calf swayed at its bent knees, minutes old, wet, steaming, its umbilical cord hanging.

Andrea and Joe are standing by to keep an eye on the delivery.

The cow is licking the calf clean and picking through the afterbirth. The cow nudges the calf with her nose suggesting, “Get up, it’s too cold down there.” 

Two other calves were born in the crisp, cold night and Tyler was there to monitor those births. Every two hours, all night long, Tyler checked on the calves, and when the temperature dropped below zero, he made rounds every hour.

“Once they get milk in them, they’re good to go,” said Tyler, a fourth-generation rancher who lives a quarter-mile from his parent’s home. 

On Monday morning, the calf disappeared among the others, some lying in the straw, some nursing and others playfully jumping about while two cows spar in a contest of dominance. 

“That’s a good sign,” Joe said. 

The sun is rising and the cows bask in the sun, their black coats absorbing the heat, warm to the touch. 

Straw is scattered throughout the corrals and barnyards — more than usual this winter with the snow often up to the cows’ udders. 

“We plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Tyler said of their supply of straw and hay. 

With each snow, more straw is laid down and it’s here in the straw the calves nap. 

Wet, cold and snow threatens sickness such as pneumonia, which is the case for one calf in the nursery. 

“He’ll be all right,” said Tyler, who is keeping an eye on the calf lying in fresh, deep straw, resting in the corner. 

The ranchers could breed cows for calving later in the spring but come October the steers will be sold, trucked to Iowa, fattened on corn and slaughtered. 

Along with meeting market demands and maximizing steer growth, the Sarrazins don’t have time for calving in late spring and must focus on flood irrigation, their hay, wheat and barley crop, and a long list of maintenance items on the ranch. 

They also want to avoid the higher risk of sickness that comes with warmer temperatures when cows are prone to an increase of bacteria.

“It’s just like kids. Once it warms up, becomes damp and muddy, they pick up sickness,” Andrea says. 

Joe and Tyler, are out at sunrise Monday sorting the cows and calves by age. 

“It’s a great way to raise children, to raise your family,” Tyler said of ranch life. “They learn good values. (Ranching) makes your kids learn how to work.”

Tyler’s daughter, Everly, 9, has two cows she helps raise, and every year she shows a pair of steers in 4-H. 

It’s a lifestyle more than job, says Tyler. 

Ranching is a lifestyle dating to 1906 for the Sarrazins, when Tyler’s great grandfather, Laurent Sarrazin, homesteaded on Adair Creek, about 5 miles south as the crow flies from the Tobin Creek Ranch, and worked a band of sheep on Sheep Mountain. 

The French immigrant raised seven sons and a daughter, which explains the numerous Sarrazin ranches in the Shields Valley. 

By the tone of Andrea’s voice, it’s the calves she speaks most fondly of, seeing them when it warms up and the sun is shining, as it did Tuesday.

The calves “run, buck, play and race each other,” she said. 

And when playtime tires the youngsters, they retire to the fresh straw and the sun. 

“They love to soak up the sunshine,” she said.