I thought I had him. Jim, that is.
In his last blog Jim was rattling on about babies in their mothers’ wombs right now that would be born “next year.” Hmmm. In my little mind, I got out the calendar and started wondering about how long gestation is for a cow. Longer than 12 months? That must be some superbaby cow, and some tired mother. I had called and called Jim to get clarification, but the cell must have been turned off, underwater, or worse.
Surely Jim was wrong. So I did what all writers do: I wrote “around” the unclear point in a way that would protect the innocent.
“Calving year, it’s the calving year!” Jim roared when I did get hold of him after publishing his blog. Got me.
Turns out that at every cattle ranch there is (or should be) an intricate plan for managing the herd according to what the herd needs, and when a rancher talks about “this year” or “next year” he or she is really talking about the reproductive year: the best time for calves to be born so they have the greatest chance to survive and to thrive.
Keep in mind, too, that Jim’s operation is the antithesis of the factory farm where cows grow up confined and rely on corn and soy for feed. In Jim’s world, the herd is outside all the time, ranging freely, and the feed is pasture grass — with flakes of alfalfa hay to bridge the period when winter grass has frozen and lost nutritional value.
So it’s critical that when babies are born, they have every factor possible working for them and for their mothers. And to that end, timing is everything.
“Everyone believes that babies must be born in the spring. But since the baby doesn’t eat grass for the first month and a half of his life — he lacks the anaerobic bacteria to digest it — it’s better in this Mediterranean climate for the babies to be born in the fall,” Jim says.
Jim is now on a roll. He’s in his element. He’s educating someone from the City.
“We need to get babies on the ground before the bad weather gets here. That means our calving year is August 15 to August 14. ‘Next year’ is anytime after August 15,” he explains.
I see. Babies are conceived around November 15 (“this” year), and born nine months later between August 15 and October 1st (“next” year).
“When they’re born in the fall, they go through winter on their mothers’ milk. When the grass is here in spring, they’re big enough to eat it and also eat on their mother’s surplus production of milk from the new grass. You can just about stand there and watch them grow right in front of your eyes, they do so well,” he adds.
That’s why Jim is usually running around like a crazy man in the fall, just when you’d think things would be buttoning down for winter. Fall is full of babies. Winter is for mothering, and for walking cows from one end of the pasture to another to manage their use of forage. Spring is for new green grass and as for summer … Summer is fraught with irrigation, irrigation and more irrigation chores, 18-hour days, and miles and miles of racing across warm green hillsides on the tractor.
It’s not your normal calendar. It’s not your normal cattle ranch, if you go by the numbers of cows raised on CAFOs (Concentrated/Confined Animal Feeding Operations) vs. the number raised like this.
And above all, it’s not your normal rancher. It’s Jim Gates, the guy who’s already mentally in “next” year this year, and planning for next next year this year. Make sense?
See you next time, this year, then next year later this year.
Oh, by the way, here’s a link on CAFO farming. Jim says it has so much interesting stuff in it “you can read ’till your eyeballs fall out.” Thanks, Jim.