It is spring at the Oak Springs Road ranch near Maupin and dozens of newborn calves cavort around pastures while their placid mothers munch on fresh green grass.
“This is my favorite time of the year,” said cowboy Keith Nantz. “It’s pretty fulfilling to see God’s gift of new life and be able to use my abilities to protect and care for them.”
Two to three births have taken place each day since the first week in March when about 60 pregnant cows owned by the Dillon Land and Cattle Company began going into labor. Nantz, the business partner and general manager, and his hired hands, Jason Ware and Craig Rutherford, are keeping a close eye on heifers, which are cows that have not yet given birth.
They are also bottle-feeding one calf, a twin that was rejected by its mother. Another twin that was abandoned ended up being adopted by a cow who lost her newborn after a difficult birth.
“Just like humans, some cows don’t have the bonding instinct,” said Nantz.
After finding the rejected newborn wandering in confusion around the pasture, Nantz milked a cow to provide the calf with colostrum. This first milk is high in nutrients and contains antibodies to protect babies against disease.
It’s critical for a calf to get colostrum within 12 hours of birth, according to Nantz.
In some cases, he can force bonding by hobbling a cow so it can’t kick a calf attempting to nurse. Within a day or two, the newborn begins to smell like the mother and she finally accepts it. If that doesn’t work, Nantz houses an orphan in the horse barn next to his home so they are close at hand for twice-daily feedings of a special formula.
Bottle feeding continues for several months while the calf learns how to forage. Abandoned calves will remain of lower weight than their mothered peers from lack of natural nurturing, said Nantz.
A CAREFUL WATCH
Heifers are usually bred at 15 to 16 months. Their gestation time is nine months, with labor averaging two to three hours. Sometimes a calf is turned the wrong way so it cannot be delivered naturally.
When this happens, Nantz restrains the cow in a squeeze chute and gently reaches inside her uterus to turn the baby so its front legs and head emerge first from the birth canal.
When the calf is too big for the cow to deliver easily, he uses lubrication to aid its passage through the birth canal.
In rare cases, when the cow is in distress, he loops a specially designed chain around the baby’s hooves and then carefully pulls during contractions to help with its delivery.
“If a cow in labor is not making progress in a couple of hours, I’ll start getting involved,” he said.
Nantz is spending a lot of time riding the range these days on the lookout for pregnancy problems. He said heifers can get confused about the meaning of labor pains and wander around bellowing in agitation until their calf drops out.
“They sometimes look pretty startled, like they aren’t entirely sure what happened,” he said.
Most of the new mothers immediately begin nurturing their babies. They lick the calf clean and then eat the afterbirth, an instinctual practice that provides nutrients for milk production and prevents predators, such as coyotes, from picking up the scent of a vulnerable newborn.
So far this month, births among the Angus-cross herd have gone well without intervention, something Nantz credits to genetic planning.
He selects semen from bulls with DNA that promises lower birth weight in calves — 75-85 pounds — and broader hips in cows to ensure easier delivery.
“If you get the birth weight right, 98 percent of cows will calf with no issues,” he said.
The EPD (Expected Progeny Difference) report on bulls even lists the projected width of a calf’s head and shoulders that will be going through the birth canal. It also predicts the amount of milk a lactating cow will likely produce, which determines the level of feed and protein supplements she needs.
Good nutrition helps the cow maintain adequate body conditioning while she is caring for her calf, and also gets her ready to breed again in about three months.
“You are trying to find the optimum balance and, of course, you are looking for longevity,” Nantz said.
Each year, he expects to lose 1 percent of newborns to disease or birth defects but is determined to get that number as close to zero as possible.
Shifting the cycle
Toward that end, he is slowly moving birth days back to May and June, the time of year when large game animals, such as elk and deer, give birth.
In January and February, the typical months for cattle births, the weather is often frigid so newborns have to expend more energy to keep warm, making them more susceptible to disease.
“They are using energy to stay alive instead of growing,” said Nantz.
Because warm-season grass is not available for grazing in the winter, high quality hay has to be provided to nursing mothers, which increases production costs.
Seventy percent of expenses involved in a cow/calf operation are tied to winter feed, according to Nantz.
He said the Dillon operation is currently expending about $20,000 on winter feed for 85 cows, who eat an average of 25 pounds of hay per day.
By May, nutritious summer grasses grow freely across the range and make up the bulk of food for cattle. A study performed by the Dickinson Research Extension Center in North Dakota determined that steers — castrated males — can gain more than two pounds of body weight per day on this fodder.
Although summer calves end up weighing about 35 pounds less than those born in winter and fed hay and supplements, the profit loss at the market can be made up by fewer deaths and a reduction in workforce labor.
Nantz said the winter birthing cycle for cattle began after World War II due to demands from the packing industry, which saw higher margins during the summer barbecue season and winter holidays.
Production costs were also much lower at that time in history due to a market glut of corn and grain.
Shifting the birth cycle of his cows back a couple of months, Nantz believes, will set the company up nicely for a better gross margin per cow by lowering production costs.
However, accomplishing that task is not as easy as just breeding a cow later in the year. Some may not respond well to a biological change and could end up being sold because they don’t produce a calf.
Another advantage of the adjustment is a greater array of marketing options. Instead of beef sales being dictated by the market, Nantz will decide when to sell.
At the time of harvest, his steers are 18 months old and weigh an average of 1,350 pounds, each having consumed about 3 percent of its body weight in feed each day.
“We have to keep the cash flow coming in to pay the bills,” Nantz said. “Reducing the level of winter feed can make a lot of difference when you are putting $500 into a steer and getting $1,000-1,100 for it, which leaves you with a $500-600 gross margin.”
He said it is more difficult for ranchers who graze livestock on public lands to have a late spring or summer calving season. Their cattle are usually on the home range in winter and taken into remote areas in summer, where newborns would be more at risk from predators. And restrictions set forth by government agencies prohibit calving from taking place on these lands.
Nantz partnered in 2008 with John Dillon, the landowner, to start their company, which is headquartered in Dufur. Much of the 1,500-acre Oak Springs ranch is planted in wheat and hay. The herd also grazes on 120 acres along Fifteenmile Creek, as well as leased land on Eightmile Creek.
Another 2,000 acres of ground is leased from a nearby landowner.
As part of his new calving strategy, Nantz plans to take out 600 acres of wheat, the least profitable segment of the operation. He wants to replace it with the native grass of this arid region, which will further lower production costs by providing natural forage for cows and calves.
“In beef production, you are continually trying to find the balance between stewardship and profitability,” he said.
A Rancher's Life is a year-long series by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte and photographer Mark B. Gibson of The Dalles Chronicle. Here are the stories so far:
A Rancher's Life and A 'big picture' outlook started the series January 25, 2014.
All in a Day's Work and Moving cows is just the beginning were published February 12, with Weathering the storms. An audio slideshow, Working cows, was also published in February.
March started with a look at wolves in two parts, Wolf trouble and Wolves on the move. It continues with Springs promise, a look at calves and spring on the ranch.
An editorial, "More defenses needed," wrapped up coverage on this issue.
May started with the story exploring the trouble faced by one ranch, whose story is told in new feature-length movie screened locally in Hood River. One family member currently lives in The Dalles, and in "A Place to call Home" she tells her story.
May also featured multiple stories addressing the issue of public grazing, an issue researched by reporter RaeLynn Ricarte for over four months. The issue is first explored in"Battle rages over grazing rights." Much of this battle has been fought in court, and "Taxpayers foot the bill of resource lawsuits" explores one aspect of this battle. Additional stories followed: Seeking balance on our public lands, A place for cattle, Activist disputes accusation of fee gouging, An embattled system,and Walden: Scrutiny need on species regulation.
The May presentation ended with an editorial expressing the need for public grazing in the western states, Resources to Thrive.
A special section, Farm and Ranch, further broadened and expanded the series in June. it is available as a .pdf document: Farm and Ranch.
As July brings hot dry weather, it's a great time to explore the impact water, and a lack of water, has on the ranch community. Water is a precious commodity in Eastern Oregon. Ditch walker Sam Cobb is in charge of how the water in water stored in Rock Creek Reservoir is distributed in the article "Ditch Walker: Water is gold, here"
In August, the second edition of Farm and Ranch explored the stories and people behind some of the brands in the region.
Water issues were further explored in August, with three-part presentation:
State and federal rules water rules impact ranchers throughout the region. Water dispute boils explores state regulations and how they impact ranch operations. A related story looks at a study launched by ranchers working with OSU to study water issues in arid and semi-arid lands.
Federal proposals to change or clarify what waters are under federal jurisdiction has many agriculturalists worried, and represents yet another clash over water.
Locally, efforts are being made to work collaboratively to improve water quality on 15-mile creek for both fish and farmers. The creek is used for irrigation.