SHERIDAN — Levi Gorzalka wakes up at midnight to check on his pregnant heifers; again at 2 a.m.; once more at 4 a.m. At 6 a.m. he is up for good, beginning — so to speak — his day as a rancher during calving season.
“My philosophy is: I have them, I may as well just be here checking, trying to take care of them,” Gorzalka said. “Every calf is money in the fall.”
Nearly all of the ranchers in Sheridan County go through a similar routine during calving season, which includes February, March and April. March 20 is National Agriculture Day.
To begin the process, Gorzalka buys bulls between January and April and turns them out in late May for pasture breeding. The nine-month pregnancy means his calves are born around the beginning of March so the animals can be as big as possible for eventual sale in the fall.
Ranchers try to begin the calving process as early as possible with decent weather, but Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. This year has been tough because of the abundance of snow, which made it difficult for mothers to find a dry patch of ground on which to settle down and give birth.
Gorzalka raises about 300 new calves each year between two plots of land, including 14 heifers on his mother-in-law Pat Creswell’s property, the Bow & Arrow Ranch. Creswell said the property has been in her family since about 1920.
Creswell observes the heifers during the day and Gorzalka usually comes over for the night shift. Gorzalka said checking usually takes 15 to 20 minutes at night and he is able to fall asleep pretty quickly after the first few days. They are about halfway through the 45-day process.
Gorzalka grew up near Clearmont learning the calving process from his dad and is now doing the same for his two sons, ages 6 and 4. He enjoys the extremely labor-intensive process and believes that is the only way to run a successful operation.
“If you didn’t enjoy it, you wouldn’t make yourself get up every two hours and then still work through the day,” Gorzalka said. “That’s what the farming and ranching lifestyle comes back to. People have to enjoy it or they don’t do a good job at it.”
There are a seemingly endless number of ways that calving can go wrong, including the mother or newborn getting a bacterial disease, the calf being unable to properly drink the milk or the calf potentially coming out the wrong way and needing to be moved before birth. The ideal birthing procedure is two front feet first, then the head, followed by the back feet. Healthy heifer calves weigh between 60 and 65 pounds.
The calving process is a bit of a guessing game, as each heifer takes a different amount of time to give birth. Creswell said the average length is about two and a half hours. If it lasts more than four hours, there will likely be serious issues.
All of the heifers at Bow & Arrow Ranch are 2-year-olds giving birth for the first time, which is why they need a closer eye kept on them. Most cows ages 3 to 10 can handle the birthing process on their own.
“This is where the foundation of the whole ranch starts, is the 2-year-olds,” Gorzalka said. “These cows then will be raising calves for the next eight years until they’re about 10 years old. So this is where you want to take care of them and get as many as you can because young cows are where you keep replenishing your herd.”
A calf is usually headed toward a healthy upbringing if it successfully nurses on its first attempt. Sometimes the new mothers aren’t exactly sure what to do and need assistance from ranchers, which sometimes involves putting their head in a head catch to keep it still while the calves nurse.
For mothers, fresh water, good feed and sunshine are crucial parts of the recovery process. Gorzalka wants to let mothers nurse when they have colostrum in their milk, which contains antibodies that fight off potential diseases in the calf.
“The first 12 hours is probably the most important time for them to get the colostrum and that gets their good bacteria going in their system where they just really start gaining and growing,” Gorzalka said.
Calving can be exhausting and time-consuming, but the costs of raising new calves every year usually pay off with more caring mothers and healthier offspring.