Grit & Compassion: It’s Calving Season in Iowa

By Cristen Clark, Food & Swine

The grit and compassion of the American farmer and rancher can be felt in the heartbeat of the heartland. It manifests itself in many different ways. This week, I was reminded of this firsthand when I tagged along with one of my favorite Iowa cattle farmers, my brother-in-law Drew.

One thing is for sure: there’s no rest for the weary when it comes to calving season in Iowa.

“When weather comes in, you are up all night long, and up all day long, I catch a 10-minute nap three to four times a day and keep on rolling. This time of the year is the most critical to ensure all calves get off to a good start, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make that happen.”

Drew quietly goes about his chores and checks, observing the slightest details about the cows in the pen about 120 feet away. You can’t simply glance-and-walk-away. Instead, he stays perched on a fence until he notices something obvious.

“I see feet. She will go soon.”

“She needs a little more time,” he says. There’s plenty of ground to cover and new babies to see so we hop in the “calving rig,” a late-model Jeep, to check on the rest of the herd.

Drew’s preference would be to ride horseback through cattle. But the vehicle is warm and equipped with all the necessary tools to assess the newborn calf’s health. It also protects Drew in case a cow doesn’t want him putting the identification tag in the calf’s ear or administering its vitamin shot.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the cow is just fine with me tending to her calf. I make sure she can see it, and the immediate care I give takes a very brief amount of time. If she doesn’t take as kindly to it, I scoop up the calf, and bring it into the vehicle where it is warm and take care of its newborn needs.”

We come across a little baldy calf, tucked out of the piercing wind. You could see his mama off in the distance, grabbing a snack. She watched us intently. Drew checked to make sure that the calf was well.

“His nose is warm, he just got done eating,” he adds.

This white-faced calf’s mama was headed our way, and it was time to return to the lot where the new calf would make its debut. As luck would have it, the calf had arrived. I stepped up to the fence to get a closer look and was blocked by some other cows that provided a nice wind break for the newborn. He was silver, a cross between a Black Angus cow and a Charolais bull.

“This type of mating is more popular out west than it is here. Here in Iowa, people like black cattle, so this is a little different. But I appreciate it; the calves are strong, thanks to their genetics,” Drew says.

As we waited for the cow to clean the silver calf and for him to find his legs and nurse for the first time, I observed Drew studying every animal in the pasture. He was methodical and reflective.

“Every one of them is important. Every one of them means dinner on the table for my family, a way to make a living. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they are comfortable, healthy and well cared for. It’s my job. I’m proud to do it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not everyone is cut out for this job, but I think I am.”

Soon the calf is up nursing for the first time and once he was through, it was time to move. Drew scoops him up and walks to the barn, with the cow joining her new baby. Once the calf is safely tucked away in the barn with his mom, Drew pens an ear tag for the newborn.

Bitter cold and blankets of snow are on the way. “We’ve gotta get them to a warmer place for a while. Bad weather is coming. But it’s nothing compared to what some farmers and ranchers are facing right now,” he said.

Drew’s thoughts turn to the plight of other cattle farmers far away from Iowa but not far from mind.

The excitement of spring calving this year is stifled by an incredible heaviness of heart. Their counterparts in several the southern states face an enormity of challenges presented by wildfires that are devastating their lives, property and livelihoods.

“I can’t imagine how terrible the emotional and financial stress would be in that situation,” Drew says with quiet resolve.

“It is hard to even grasp the entirety of it all. Some ranches are a complete loss, cattle and all. The work of generations is gone. With the loss of genetics alone, it is tremendously devastating. But what is inspiring? People rallying and helping others they’ve never met before. That’s powerful and telling of the type of people who do what we do every day,” he said.

As a farmer, I can’t imagine the gravity of the decisions that some of these farmers and ranchers have had to make, and the things they’ve seen. Some have risked and lost their lives, many have lost everything. There are no words to speak to make it better. I only ask you to keep these people in your thoughts as the fires are subdued and time marches on. So many families are left with ashes where once stood glorious multi-generational ranches and cattle with genetics dating back a hundred years or more.

As with spring calving, there will be rebirth for these families, farms, ranches and communities. It will take time and incredible resolve. But as every calving season reminds us, there is a continual rebirth that happens. And it happens for a reason. To remind us of the need to rise each morning. To get up on our feet. To care for one another. And this spring, to rally around farmers and ranchers who are dealing with tremendous challenges. They need our prayers.

And support.

My close friend and fellow pig farmer Erin Brenneman of Brenneman Pork, is doing what she can to help. The Brenneman family donated the use of trailers to transport donated hay to Ashland, Kansas.

“There is no big or small, we are all melded together as one community of agriculture,” Erin says.

“It’s beautiful. It is second nature in the mentality and mindset of a farmer to help your neighbors, whether next door or in the next-door state,”

“We wouldn’t think twice when called upon to help in any way that we can in times like this. We need to utilize the gifts and opportunities that we have been given to serve a higher purpose.”