BLACKFOOT – When midwinter comes to Eastern Idaho and snow covers the ground most years, some people hitch the travel trailer to the pickup and head for warmer climes.
That’s not the case at the Butler ranch, were Rance and his sons — Slade, 40, and Dillon, 13 — run a herd of Black Angus cows on 240 acres between Tanner and Rich Lanes east of Blackfoot.
They hitch up their Wranglers, jump into the mud-spattered pickup, and head for town to load up on supplies for the bunkhouse — groceries that can be made into quick and nourishing meals without too much preparation, and lots of comfort food.
Slade kisses his wife, Jennifer, and five children goodbye at their home on Rose Road several miles away, because it’s calving time at Butler Ranch, and he’s the member of the trio who will be watching over the herd of brood stock during the nighttime hours. That means he probably won’t see much of his family until early spring.
It’s his job to make sure the calves that make their way into the world during the night arrive safely and the mothers are okay after going through the rigors of birthing.
Barring unforeseen events, such as illness or catastrophe, he’ll be spending his nights in the little bunkhouse near the calving grounds until the last calf is dropped.
Calving time means getting out of his bed and leaving the warmth of the bunkhouse at least every two hours, stepping out into nights that are likely to have temperatures that are freezing or lower for weeks at a time, trudging to the birthing area though snow or sleet and over an icy trail, or through rain and mud, depending on what Mother Nature sends, to check on the progress of his patients, because only luck decrees whether the cows give birth one at a time.
“It doesn’t happen too often,” Dillon observed, “but I know Slade has had more than 20 born in one night.”
It’s the first-calf heifers who require closest attention, Rance says, day or night.
“The older cows are experienced and pretty much take care of themselves, but not the heifers. They need a lot of looking after because they sometimes get in trouble and need some help.”
If there’s a problem he can’t handle alone, Slade is on the cell phone to Rance, who takes over for the daylight shift while Slade grabs a few hours sleep before assuming his daytime duties.
Rance and Dillon live in the home where Rance grew up off Rich Lane to the south of the ranch headquarters. He not only has decades of experience at calving, but some veterinary education to go along with it.
Longer ago than he likes to admit to, he gathered up a couple of rancher friends, George Oleson and Dave Creasey, and they went to a four-day veterinary school at Ft. Collins, CO.
“For $250, the cost of transportation, room and board while we were there and $250 worth of surgical and medical tools, I got a veterinary education,” he said. “It paid for itself in one year in the vet fees we saved.”
Among the things he learned were how to perform a Caesarean section, remove a cancerous eye, how to spay a cow, fix a prolapsed uterus, do a pregnancy check and stop an epidemic of scours. The preg check was the most difficult to master, he said. “It takes a while to build up your confidence enough to know you’re right.”
Oversight of the pregnant cattle didn’t stop even for this interview.
“I’ve got to check on a heifer that calved about two hours ago,” Rance said. We climbed into his pickup truck and set off in the direction of the birthing shelter. There we found the new mother, but no calf in sight.
Dillon exited the pickup and ran back to the bunkhouse to get the four-wheeler – the modern-day version of a cowhorse. He began circling through the herd while Rance drove the opposite direction and finally spotted the bewildered hours-old calf wandering alone amidst some dead weeds.
It was loaded into the back of the pickup and returned to its birth place, but its mother had apparently given it up for lost and returned to the herd of expectant mothers. Skillfully maneuvering the ATV through the herd, Dillon cut the heifer out, herded it back where it belonged, and they released the calf. We sat watching for a half hour until it began nursing.
While waiting, Rance explained the use of the ATV. “We haven’t given up on horses,” he said. “It’s just handier to use the four-wheeler when we’re working in close quarters. We can get through a herd in one hour on it where a horse would take us two hours.”
Although Slade tried his hand at several other endeavors before settling into the partnership with his brother and dad, they’re all glad it turned out that way. Rance is especially happy at calving time.
“I did it by myself for years,” he commented with a grin.
The new calves will be ready to travel about the first part of May. The Butlers are among the ranchers who still trail their cattle to summer grazing, and — aided by friends and family members — they will head out for the Eastern Idaho Grazing Association leases north of the Blackfoot Reservoir some 40 or 50 miles away, and the ranch homesteaded by Rance’s great-grandparents in the Blackfoot Mountains 109 years ago.
Rance was born and bred to ranching and says he never wanted to do anything else. He learned the business and the strong work ethic it takes to carry it on from his parents, the late Woodrow and Bertha Butler, and says it’s the greatest legacy they could have given him. “We’ll never be rich, at least not in money, but we learned to respect the land and take care of it. I love the life.”
Slade and Dillon also love the life. “It’s a great way to raise a family,” Slade said. “It teaches them to work and to love the land just like we do.”
Dillon, like his brother and father, learned to ride before he learned to walk, and is well on his way to becoming a top hand.
“I like to think we’re helping people,” he said. “Even though we’ll never know them, we’re providing them meat.”