Mount Sopris and Capitol Peak loom over McCabe Ranch, home to 450 head of cattle. This spring, the peaks are snow-capped, but the fields and pastures are dry and teeming with activity.
It’s peak calving season, and Brad Day, who runs McCabe Ranch with his wife Nikki, drives me around in his truck, checking on cows in several different pastures.
“See that cow right there, she’s going to calve here in an hour or so,” Day says, spotting a cow from hundreds of feet away. “That’s why she’s pacing around looking like that.”
She looks nervous, with her tail sticking straight out behind her, sniffing the ground.
“You don’t want to stress her out when she’s trying to do this. This is her one job in life is to have a calf and raise it and stay paired up,” Day says.
So Day leaves her alone to do her job and checks on all the other animals. About 80 percent of the cows will give birth in a 40-day period in the early spring. This is the end of the busiest time, when about 15 calves are born daily.
“The weather kind of dictates how we operate,” he says.
This spring has been a calving paradise. Lots of sunshine and a quick snowmelt mean that the fields are dry and warm, and even the nights have been mild. Brad and Nikki Day and two employees take turns checking on the cows every couple of hours, day and night.
For the most part, it’s been smooth sailing, but one big blizzard in early March brought snow and winds between 50 and 80 mph to the ranch.
“A freshly born calf, they come out and they’re all slimy and wet,” says Jeff Montabone, who works for the Days. “When the wind’s blowing like that, it just cuts right through them. They don’t even have a chance to warm back up.”
So they have to move quickly in bad weather, checking in at all hours and making sure the cow takes care of the calf immediately.
“It’s a matter of minutes before the calf will freeze down to the ground, and never get up,” Montabone says. “So we got to really be on them all the time when it’s cold.”
If all goes well, the calf will be born naturally, cleaned off by the mom and able to begin nursing right away to get those antibody-rich nutrients.
If not, Nikki Day will step in.
“I feel like I’m a bovine nurse midwife,” she says. “That’s not really a degree but maybe it should be one”
She patiently encourages a bond between mother and calf. It can take some time, but again, Nikki says, taking care of that calf is the cow’s one job. And then they are off to a life of leisure.
These are low-stress cows; they are not confined and are never given antibiotics unless they develop an infection. Brad Day says this is just good practice, the kind of ranch they run. It’s also necessary because many of these calves are destined for a regional Whole Foods, and they need a special certification for the high-end grocer.
Brad Day checks on herds spread across the ranch before we return to the laboring cow.
She still hasn’t given birth, and after a couple of hours, Brad and Nikki Day decide it’s time to step in and help. Brad Day prepares chains, and Nikki Day leads the cow into the calving barn. The barn is an old gym from Camp Hale, where soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division got in shape to fight overseas. It was relocated to Old Snowmass in the late 60s and is now used for a different kind of workout.
Brad Day and Montabone use chains to pull the calf’s front legs for several minutes, finally delivering a large male. It’s messy work, but after a moment, the cow turns and starts licking her calf, lowing softly.
“It’s always good to see, anytime you have to mess with them like that, she turns right around and mothers the calf,” Montabone says. “To hear her talking to him and licking him off is all you can ask for.”
This calf will gain strength in the next weeks, and head up Capitol Creek in late May to graze for the summer on Forest Service land near the base of Capitol Peak and Mount Sopris. The Days’ cows are a select breed; they need to be hearty enough to survive at elevations up to about 11,000 feet. And while this has been a charmed spring for calving, the recent warm weather isn’t all good news.
“Right now one of our biggest concerns, and I’m sure everybody else is the same way, is worried that that snow is going to melt too fast,” Day says. “It’s hard to grow grass and irrigate and make hay for next year with no water. It’s just so darn warm.”
But for now, they’ll enjoy the sun — and hope for a cool, wet June up on the mountain.