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On the Jordan ranch, calving problems all in a day's work

Apr 7, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

As it has been for more than a century, February and March is calving season in Fremont County, part of a ranching economy that delivers $55 million every year to the local fiscal profile.

Today's calving season echoes an even older tradition, dating to when bison roamed the Wind River Valley. In those days, the birthing season was a little later, in late April and into May, but the mothers and their offspring faced the same risky process.

Those dangers make calving season a nervous time for ranchers whose livelihoods depend on their herds. Ranching families stay up many nights to help with births. If the weather is cold, they bring calves into the house to stay warm.

The Jordans -- Gene and Debbie and their children -- are one such ranching family, and they drew on experience and skill to save two young lives on a warm day in late March.

On land between the Owl Creek Mountains and Muddy Ridge in north-central Fremont County, Gene and Debbie have worked their place for 39 years. Their children and grandchildren help them now.

Work never ends

Though it was a Saturday, by mid-morning the family already was hard at work.

Gene and Debbie loaded a trailer with 1,800-pound bales of alfalfa hay and spread it in a pasture for a herd of older cattle.

Son Lance and his wife, Christine, took on a different project. A cow and a calf from different pairs had died the night before. Unfortunately for the orphaned calf, cows do not naturally care for infants that are not theirs.

Gene said cows identify their young by smell. There was only one way Lance and Christine could make the orphaned calf smell like the dead one.

The pair set to work skinning the thin body of the dead calf. Blood covered their hands as they sliced the tissue connecting skin to muscles and peeled back the hide.

Then they draped the skin around the orphaned calf, tied it under its legs and belly, and put the animal in their barn. They put the calfless cow in the barn and gave it a small sedative.

Heifer in trouble

While the younger couple worked with the calf, Gene and Debbie checked on their pregnant cows in the pastures.

Those ready to give birth were easy to spot: they held their tails to one side, dirt covered their sides from lying down, and the cows often stood apart from others.

Gene spied one heifer, a cow 2 years old, just starting to give birth. One front hoof had emerged, but she was not making much progress.

The calf was the mother's first, so the ranchers knew she was more likely to have trouble. Gene and Debbie decided to give her time and return after lunch.

Gene checked how the adoption was going in the barn. He found the youngster suckling on the cow's udder, and the mother would round on any humans that approached, defending her adopted calf.

Though gruesome, the trick with the hide saved the young animal's life.

Difficult birth

After lunch, Gene and Debbie checked on the heifer again and found that just the tip of a second hoof had appeared. The birth was taking so long, they feared the calf would drown, so the ranchers decided to intervene.

Debbie drove the new cow-calf pair out of the barn and readied the building for the heifer. Meanwhile, Gene and Christine drove two four-wheelers out to the pasture and rounded up the distressed animal.

Every time the cow would stop and try to round on them they would cut her off, encouraging her to keep plodding toward the barn.

Too much jostling could hurt the calf, Gene said, so they kept the heifer at a walk.

As he talked, the speedometer read 3 miles per hour.

Once they got the heifer in a corral in front of the barn door, she became a little more difficult. Gene, Christine and Christine's niece, Faith Hoffman, gamely climbed into the ring while the animal circled it, spinning suddenly and sending the humans leaping out of the way.

With the three ranchers yelling and waving, though, the cow soon found the barn door and went inside.

Therein, the ranchers positioned her neck between the two sides of a clamping device and closed it to hold the animal in place.

Once the cow was secured, all hands retrieved their equipment, so experienced they barely needing to speak

Gene donned long, plastic gloves, Debbie and Faith gathered ropes and harnesses, and Christine got a machine called a "calf-puller."

Gene first reached into the birth canal and brought out the calf's second hoof. Christine tied chains behind each foot.

They worked together to tie a harness around the heifer and braced a ridged pole on its rear end so it stuck straight back. Then, Christine connected a chain from the calf's hooves to a lever on the pole.

Once all hands were ready, Christine pulled the lever, making a ratchet mechanism climb up the teeth on the pole. The chains began to drag the calf from the birth canal.

As the head inched out, the calf was not breathing, and a wave of fear passed over the ranchers. But all of a sudden the infant started regurgitating fluid.

The vomiting was a sign of life, but it also showed how close the calf came to drowning.

As the newborn emerged, Christine reached forward and stroked its tongue to encourage it to vomit.

Then, with a final tug on the lever and push from the heifer, the calf's rear end popped from the birth canal, followed by a deluge of fluid and blood. Christine guided it to the ground.

The little animal still did not breathe, so Christine tickled its nose with a stalk of straw, making it vomit and clear its throat.

Soon enough, it was breathing easily on its own and sat up, tucking its legs under its stomach.

The old rancher was happy with how his family handled the dangerous situation.

"It was a big calf," Gene said. "Everybody knew where they what they were supposed to do; everybody knew where they were supposed to go."

"That's a lot of work for it, but it's worth it," Christine added.

With two more calves out of danger, the viability of the herd was that much safer for another year, and with it, the livelihood of three generations of ranchers.

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