Winter firmly laid hold of our high country this week. Yesterday morning, while driving my pickup through Stanley Basin up the Salmon River from us, the ice fog was impenetrable by even my off-road lights. The mercury read 24 below zero at the Stanley Mercantile. It wasn’t quite daylight, and I have often run across town-living elk who chose not to migrate to lower country, instead wintering along the many hot springs and thermal areas that bubble up along the Salmon River.
It has been several years since I ran into one with a vehicle. The last time it happened, daughter Melanie and I were driving slowly through similar winter fog at the head of the Pahsimeroi Valley. Same cold, same ice fog. Suddenly, a mature cow elk materialized through the mist. In a microsecond after contacting our bumper, her toppled body imploded our windshield as we skidded to a stop. As we stopped, her body slid off the front of the hood with a sickening thud to the snow-covered roadbed in front of us.
We were covered in a mix of brown elk fur and glass. I looked at Melanie, and she looked at me; both of our faces had speckles of blood on them where the shards of glass coated our cheeks. Grunting in the front of our vehicle got our attention. Cow elk stood up, shook glass off like a dog coming out of the river, and ran, un-limping and apparently unhurt uphill into the mist above the roadway.
Since our engine had cut out, we could hear the cow elk talking in the fog uphill from us, continuing on the forage journey du jour. Lesson learned, for both elk and driver. Melanie and I sat for a moment in stunned silence before we pulled off the road so we wouldn’t get rear-ended, picked glass off of our faces, brushed our coats and seats clean, and drove the frigid windshield-less 35 miles back to the ranch. No heater could keep up: we froze. They don’t call them windshields for nothing.
The elk are a constant companion in the valley this time of year. There are literally thousands that migrate downward out of the high country when winter sets in. Often, while driving the serpentine Salmon River road at night, we will be passed by out-of-country driver driving way too fast to be able to dodge an elk or even a herd of them as the elk go down to the ice-speckled river for a nighttime drink. On occasion, we’ll see the driver again, alongside the road, standing in front of their car, trying to call that tow truck for their now elk-disabled vehicle
The elk are in our river bottom, sharing the area with our cattle and grazing the dormant grasses that cover the bottoms along the Pahsimeroi.
We watch elk a lot. They are our “cow equivalent.”
And we can learn from them.
I was in the bank last week as I chatted with a teller. She asked if we started calving yet. Nearly all the hundreds of ranchers in our valleys have timed their calving to occur from late December to early March, the timing controlled by when they turn their bulls in to breed their cows.
“No, Sally; we haven’t started. We don’t start until May.”
“You are kidding. I thought everyone calved in the winter. Fact is, I’ve always wondered why Mother Nature had those cattle calving in the winter anyway. It never made sense to me.”
I laughed a little. “Sally, Mother Nature never calved anything in the dead of winter.”
“So why do most people calve in the winter?”
“That’s a great question,” I said, smiling, as she handed me my bank receipts. “But probably with a longer answer than you want to hear, since you are just about to close.” I’m notorious for walking in just before closing, but they still always treat me nice
When Caryl and I started out with our small herd nearly 30 years ago, we calved when everyone else did. It often meant staying up all night to watch birth occur (awesome, always, by the way) because if I wasn’t on hand in the subzero cold to ensure that the calf gets up immediately, core temperature of the newborn would drop so fast on the icy ground that there was little chance for the little guy or gal to survive. Several times I brought in a very cold dead-looking calf that Caryl and the girls resurrected in our bathtub with hot water and vigorous toweling. It was tough on all of us, but everyone was doing it this way, and so did we. It ensured that the calves were as big as could be by the time the grass ran out in the fall, at which time everyone loaded calves on trucks, sold to Midwestern feedlots.
I hated it. Some nights, I just dozed with the cows in the calving barn. They didn’t want to be there, and it was always a trick to get them in. They were wild range cows, after all, and didn’t want a human anywhere near them as they gave birth to baby. Often, simply because of my presence, they would stop labor due to stress; nature told them to head to the bushes to give birth in private, not in a floodlight lit barn with this guy watching. Often these labors wouldn’t progress, and I had to intervene, with chains and calf puller, and get that baby out of there.
I was successful in the winter calving paradigm for the most part. It was just a lot of extra work. It required really nice high dollar hay to feed them in the wintertime for lactation; adequate dry bedding for calving in snow; windbreaks to keep the icy subzero breezes off the babies; extensive lighting systems to see who was about to do what; and huge amounts of coffee to keep me propped up.
But then, I started noticing things about those elk. And deer. And I watched them.
We’d see tiny elk calves, antelope and deer fawns in the brush in the spring as we turned out on the range in the low foothills. The elk, antelope and deer were bearing their young in the spring. On green grass. When it was warm.
In fact, none of them calved in the winter.
It seemed so obvious. Why wouldn’t we let our cows calve the same way? When that simple truth was brought to attention by a bunch of minding-their-own business elk and deer Caryl and I decided to follow suit. Nature had been at this calving thing for much longer than us, after all. We held the bulls off the cows for 3 more months.
The neighbors thought we were nuts, and still do.
“When you gonna turn them bulls out, Glenn?”
It got a little awkward. I didn’t want to insult anyone. But I thought it better not to insult nature.
And now, we’ll never go back.
Alderspring calves are born on green grass, under the high sun of spring. Disease is almost nil, as is our assistance. I check them once a day. I rarely lose a calf. I think even the cows are relieved.
I know I am. We get to rest easy when the thermometer plummets to subzero. Alderspring calves are safely in utero, and impervious to those winter winds.
Just like the elk baby that was safely inside her mom when she happened to meet with our car’s windshield. She was only a few months pregnant at the point, and by the way she broadsided our window, and happily skipped off, I can assure you, no damage was done.
That little elk would be born under birdsong and blue skies and ready to follow its mom across the wild grasses of the high ranges; on those same mountains where Alderspring beeves would roam with them as the sun reaches its solstice position, high in the sky.
Glenn, Caryl, Girls and Cowhands from Alderspring