By Becky Orr, Cowboy State Daily
Mark Eisele smiled as he watched the calves gather close to their mothers.
Although the newborns in the open pen were just one or two days old, they already had formed a bond with their mothers and their mothers with them. Some contented calves nursed, others napped and a few explored the pen on wobbly, unsteady legs. Their mothers kept their eyes on them, nudged them lovingly or licked their offspring’s shiny coats.
“They recognize their babies by sound and smell,” he said. “They can pick them out of a herd with a cry.”
It’s calving season at King Ranch, Eisele’s family-owned cattle operation five miles west of Cheyenne. The annual season of birth that unfolds here is happening or soon will occur at ranches across Wyoming.
“I’m proud and lucky I get to do this,” Eisele, 62, said of his lifelong career.
He helped out at his first calving when he was 14 and has been integrally involved for more than 40 years. And yet, he never tires of it.
“The miracle of life and how that has developed through nature is a spectacle that people should witness and appreciate,” he said. “The frailty of life is so in your face. It is very powerful. When that calf shakes his head and looks up at you and he’s breathing, it’s a wonderful feeling. Every one of them is special to me.”
Eisele and his family own the historic ranch, which was started in 1904 as a sheep operation and became a cattle ranch in 1968. Eisele’s immediate family includes his wife Trudy, daughters Kendall Roberts (who basically is second in command) and Kaycee Eisele; son, Colton Eisele; Kendall’s husband James and Colton’s wife Miranda. All help out with the calving duties.
The calving season at King Ranch starts around Feb. 20 and lasts for 75 days. It is the most intense time for ranchers who must keep in close and constant watch on their cows and calves. There are many sleepless nights for ranchers with 2 a.m. checks and around-the-clock monitoring.
“I literally live at the barn for two months,” he said, adding the barn is about 400 yards from the main house. “I have a trailer down there and eat and sleep down there. You get tired; you get a little worn out. But when you have a calf hit the ground and he’s alive and you saved him, you get the support to hit the ground running and go save another one.”
When calving season rolls around, everything else in a rancher’s life – from birthday parties to family commitments – are put on hold.
“The calves come first. And everybody understands that,” he said.
Eisele and his immediate family raise about 400 black Angus and red Angus cows on the main ranch and another 600 to 800 yearlings and pasture cattle at the west ranch. His parents raise 150 cows on their ranch nearby.
So far, about 350 calves have been born this season at the ranch with about 50 cows still to give birth.
“Things are winding down,” Eisele said.
Across Wyoming, up to 900,000 calves will be born during the calving season at the state’s 2,500 to 3,000 commercial cow operations, according to Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association.
At King Ranch, most calves are born in the barn where they are tagged and numbered and get a shot to protect them. They spend at least 12 hours bonding with their mothers in the pen. Cow and calf then move to an open pen, which has a wood side for protection from the elements, fresh hay and an automatic heated water supply. After a few days, they move to the main pasture. The calves in the pasture are full of energy and jump across the land. Eisele keeps a small notebook in his shirt pocket that contains hand-written records of all the calves.
“As the calves are born, we write down the cow’s number, the calf’s number, the date, the sex, the weight, how easy the birth was and if they nursed,” he said.
They then transfer the information to their cell phones and create electronic records.
A circle drawn beside the number of a calf in the book means the calf died. Typically, calves are born without problems, but about 2 percent to 3 percent die despite the best efforts of Eisele and his family.
“We will struggle to keep everything alive,” he said, adding that “it’s heartbreaking for me” when a calf dies.
Some calves die after being accidentally stepped on by other cows. The animals also can contract pneumonia.
“Cattle are really an interesting critter. They are tougher than all get out,” Eisele said. “They can survive so many things. But a simple thing like the change between day and night and the temperature swings will trigger pneumonia – respiratory distress – and it will kill them.”
Cows also are quite social. For example, they frequently take turns babysitting several calves so their mothers can graze, he said.
Ranchers wear many hats and the job of calving means they need to wear almost every one at the same time. They need to be medics, business men, weather men, and bit of a psychologist to better read and understand the cows, he said.
Eisele and his family help in the birthing process, including pulling a calf’s legs to get it through the birth canal. He tries to be at every birth he can, but can’t make all of them.
“I need to see if the cow had problems or if the calf was sluggish,” he said.
He said he also needs to know if the cow can give birth or if the calf is so large that a veterinarian is needed to perform a Caesarean section.
“There is a lot of animal husbandry that goes on. We use stethoscopes, thermometers and we do a lot of stuff to analyze these calves,” he said.
The knowledge doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s an acquired education,” he said, one where he said he is still learning every day.
Eisele is at ease with his herd and loves to watch the cows go after the cow cakes made from grains that he dumps from back of his truck.
He recognizes cows in the pasture and pets many as he chats with them. He too, has formed a bond.
“One of the saddest things I have to do is put calves on a truck and ship them away to the feeders knowing that is the last I’ll see of them. That is hard to do. I understand that is the way things work, but I revel in the births,” he said.