Calving season isn't for babies

Endless work each spring proves the rancher's life is not easy

She was a grayish-tan angus cross, tagged through the ear with red plastic identifying her as "Y1," and she was not happy.

I was on Kristina Schweitzer's cattle ranch north of Dawson Creek, following her and a cowboy named Malcolm Maclean as they tagged calves recently born into the herd.

I was learning, among other things, that cows can move quite quickly when they want to.

Schweitzer and Maclean were encountering more resistance than usual from Y1. Unlike most of the herd, which had greeted efforts to identify their offspring only somewhat warily, Y1 was fighting back - lowering her head, stamping at the ground and circling the side by side quad Schweitzer and I were traveling in.

What happened next was a blur. Maclean threw a rope around the untagged calf, snaring it by its hind legs. He stepped from his horse into the bed of the quad, and together he and Schweitzer hauled the squirming, days old-calf onto the small bit of high ground.

Y1 continued to snort and feint at the quad, but the miniscule tailgate and slight height advantage gave the ranchers enough time to ready the tag applicator, a device that looks like a hole punch, and drive the plastic marker into the calf's ear. Once the freshly tagged calf was back on its feet, Y1 calmed down, and went back to other cow business.

For Schweitzer and Maclean, it was just another day in calving season.

By some estimates, more than 25,000 calves are born every year in the Peace. April is the height of calving season, but the window when cows are born has grown wider over time, and now runs from January into summer.

According to Schweitzer, ranchers control when they calve down to almost the day - it all depends when the bulls are turned out on the herd.

After that, "any good cowman can pick out from a mile away when a cow is within two or three weeks of calving," said Mike Ross of the Dawson Creek Veterinary Clinic.

Ranching has been a part of the Peace Country's economy since the start. But at least one early visitor had little faith in the region's potential for agriculture.

"There is not the slightest reason for that emigration of farmers to Peace River which wild enthusiasts clamour for," H. Somers Somerset wrote after a visit in the 1890s. "In ten years' time, this may be a cattle-country, although the hay-swamps are insufficient to ensure enough feed for the long winter."

It's unclear whether ranchers heeded Somerset's warnings. Regardless, by 1917, a provincial agriculturist reported "a total of approximately 1,500 cattle" in the region. Most were small operations, with no one reporting ownership of more than 195 head.

Given that time frame, Schweitzer's operation is relatively new. She and her husband started ranching in the late 90s, bought their current land in 2004 and now run around 200 head of cattle.

Her husband's grandparents started ranching in the Peace in the 50s, while her own family, also ranchers, moved to the Peace in the 70s.

When I asked if ranching in the Peace is stable, Schweitzer laughed.

The short answer is no. Things are positive now, but if the industry is trending up at the moment, it's largely because it hit rock bottom a decade ago.

In May 2003, the US government closed the border to Canadian beef after an Alberta cow tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy - better known as mad cow disease.

The industry, which was worth $4.5 billion in 2002 according to a parliamentary report, was thrown into a tailspin from which it is still recovering. At the peak of the crisis, the industry was losing around $18 million a day.

"Lots of farmers or ranchers have had to have a second income," said Schweitzer, whose husband decided to take work off the farm. That's part of the reason Schweitzer has had to look for help during calving season.

"There was no money for years - no one was hiring," said Maclean, adding that many members of his family took jobs in the oil patch in order to support their own ranch north of Edmonton. "Now that the market's back up, there will be more people coming."

Maclean hopes to one day manage his own ranch.

I first heard of Maclean at the Rolla Pub. In addition to being a cattleman, he's a country musician. He sings, plays guitar and writes songs as the leader of the Malcolm Maclean Band, an Alberta roots music group.

Maclean has played Rolla twice since he relocated for calving season in mid-March. His work as a touring cattleman has tended to line up nicely with his life as a touring musician.

I got in touch with Maclean, and he and Schweitzer agreed to show me the cattle farm. Schweitzer had no shortage of positive things to say about Maclean as we drove from the farmhouse to the first pasture in an ATV. His CV amazed her when he responded to her help wanted ad.

"He was like, I can weld, I can rope, I can fix things," she said.

Maclean is also, among other things, a certified Class 1 truck driver, a leather worker and a trained farrier (one who works on horse's feet).

"It was just so impressive," she said.

But to run cows in this day and age takes more than a varied skill set, she said. It comes down to temperament, and you have to be a romantic. That's due in no small part to the demands of the oil and gas industry, where someone with Maclean's skill set could easily make six figures.

"To meet someone like Malcolm who wants to be in agriculture, who will probably always be in agriculture, it's really cool," she said.

Maclean follows along on horseback. When we arrive in the pasture, the two start searching for fresh calves to tag.

While there are different systems for tagging calves out there, the purpose is simple - to link the mother to the offspring. Ranchers need to know who's who in a herd, in case a calf isn't eating because its separated from its mother, or if there are health or hereditary issues.

The majority of Schweitzer's herd is identified by number. But she lets her kids name three calves a year.

Most of the cows were sheltered behind a wind block, but those who have recently calved like to distance themselves from the herd.

That's been a perennial headache for ranchers.

Esme Tuck, a resident of Pouce Coupe who wrote about her experiences as a settler in the 20s and 30s, described a cow named Jimbo who managed hide her calf for days at a time every spring.

After several years of wasted time searching for the calf, Tuck's husband Spencer started to keep a close eye on Jimbo during calving season. He would follow Jimbo whenever she left the herd, hoping to grab her calf and save himself days of searching.

(It's especially important that calves be tagged soon after being born, since the older they get, the faster they can run.)

One day, Jimbo wandered down to a nearby river. Certain she was calving, Spencer followed, only to watch her graze casually for several hours before returning to the pasture.

"Two days later, we found the calf at the edge of the bush, not far from the barn," wrote Tuck. "One cannot but have sympathy with an animal who wishes to keep a little privacy in her domestic affairs. But it was an awful waste of our time."

Secluded on the far end of the first field we found the newest addition to the herd, likely no more than 15 minutes old. This calf was still too young to tag, still covered in afterbirth and shaky on its legs.

"As a rancher, that's what you like to see," said Schweitzer.

We kept our distance from the mother, still recovering from giving birth and likely very hormonal. We instead turned back to look for older calves - ones born in the past few days.

Maclean and Schweitzer moved casually among these, picking out the ones that were untagged. In some cases, Maclean roped a calf to hold it still for Schweitzer. In others, he dismounted and grabbed a leg, pulling it a safe distance away and never taking his eyes off the mother. The key is to use the calf like a shield, since the mother is unlikely to bowl over her offspring to get at the intruder.

We eventually happened upon one of the named calves, a days-old heifer named Dilly.

The next mission was to reunite Dilly with her mother, named Dairy Queen, who was in another field.

Schweitzer said she lets her kids name the calves to give them a sense of ownership. They're involved in 4-H and have no illusions about what happens to beef cattle - they end up as hamburger, possibly steak.

She sells most of her cows through Vold, Jones and Vold, an auction house with a location in Dawson Creek. Most end up on feedlots in Alberta. They'll spend just under three-quarters of their first year in the Peace, split between Schweitzer's farm and a separate summer pasture.

She hauls Dilly into the back of the ATV, and puts me behind the wheel (my one contribution to the day's work, besides not getting stepped on by a cow). We drove through a gate into the next field.

Somehow, Schweitzer spotted Dairy Queen in the herd, and we drove over. She hauled Dilly out of the bed, and the calf gamboled over to its mother.

I turned for a moment from that scene to watch Maclean ready his lasso to snare the untagged calf from Y1. After watching Maclean work that afternoon, what Schweitzer said about this being a romantic line of work made sense.

Maclean is a cowboy. Before that afternoon, I wasn't sure whether such a thing still existed. Sure, he could be making a lot more on a rig.

But if you grew up roping calves from horseback, how could you want to do anything else?

By the time I turned back to look for Dilly, she'd disappeared into the herd.

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